With fists, with words, with kindness
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When the three o’clock whistle blew, it meant first shift had ended at the Algodón Textile Mill. (I was an adult before I knew algodón means “cotton” in Spanish.) The mill was owned by rich Yankees who, I was told, lived in a castle in New Jersey. We lived on the hill beside the mill, in a shotgun house with a small front porch. The houses on the hill were all alike, each squatting like a hen on four piles of bricks or flat stones. When I heard the mill whistle, I would go and sit on the green metal glider on our front porch and wait for my daddy, who walked home from the mill wearing denim pants, brogan shoes, and a white T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve. When he got home, we would have “soupy taters” cooked with lots of butter and onion, cornbread, fried liver mush, steamed cabbage, and pinto beans.
After the supper dishes had been cleared and Momma had done her evening work, she’d put on a fresh apron and go sit on the porch. This was the signal that she was ready to receive company. The neighborhood women would come over one by one in their clean aprons to sit in the straight-back chairs or rockers. There was a Luzianne tea can at the corner of the porch for those who dipped snuff, because Momma didn’t approve of spitting in the yard. As it got dark, the women sat and murmured to one another while we kids played tag under the streetlight or caught lightning bugs, pulling off their “fire” and pasting it around our eyes and mouth so that we looked like monsters in the dark.
When I got older, I tried to sit on the porch, but the women would shoo me away. Sometimes I would quietly crawl under the front steps, mindful of the black-widow spiders and ever-present litter of kittens. Squatting on my haunches, I learned about the agony of childbirth and the trials of a woman’s monthly time. I learned whose man was chasing that little “split tail” who worked on second shift and whose husband had drunk up last week’s paycheck. I hid under the porch and listened until I was a teenager and was allowed to learn about life in the open from those tired women in their clean, starched aprons.
I often wondered how rich Yankee girls learned about life, living in castles with no front porch.
Bessemer City, North Carolina
After my freshman year of college, I spent a summer living at my parents’ house in Los Angeles, developing my addictions to video games and corn chips. The next summer my folks got me a job with a contractor who built cabins up in the sequoias. I lugged cement, dug ditches, and hauled lumber for the crew. The cantankerous contractor took delight in commenting on the smallness of my muscles and my apparent lack of testicles.
I stayed in a single room on the bottom floor of a three-story cabin. My outside door opened onto a porch just big enough for a rickety wooden bench, an old rocking chair, and a table fashioned from a wagon wheel. It was cramped, but it had a commanding view of a slate ridge across the valley and was just a few feet from a forest of fir, cedar, pine, and aspen. Busy chipmunks and squirrels scampered along tree branches and boulders, and sometimes the porch railing. Lizards darted around the porch, hunting ants. Their purposeful ways somehow made me feel less anxious and worried about my own life.
Aside from my rodent and reptilian visitors, I had no friends — and also no phone and no television. The only entertainment was a turntable and a dozen Neil Young albums. After work I’d sit on my porch, listen to the records, and watch the sun dip down between two peaks, illuminating the needles of the tallest ponderosa pines. Then I’d eat macaroni and cheese while the stars came out and the crickets chirped and the frogs croaked.
A month into the summer I went back to Los Angeles to visit my friends and family. I was struck by all the pavement and noise and busyness — car horns, airplane engines, blaring sirens. There was also a disheartening paucity of chipmunks. I felt assaulted by humanity. At night the stars were faint imposters of the ones I’d seen from my porch in the mountains.
Santa Barbara, California
He skied, went scuba diving and mountain biking, and played handball. Every year he hiked a different stretch of the Appalachian Trail. And then one morning he died. I woke up, and he was lying there beside me dead.
A neighbor helped me through the worst of it. After the ordeal was over, I returned home to . . . nothing. It was the first time I had been alone in years. I could not stand the thought of sleeping in our bed, so I grabbed his sleeping bag, because it smelled of him, and I slept in it on the back porch. I slept on the porch every night for a week. Sometimes I still do.
Jacks Creek, Tennessee
I’d been adopted as a newborn, and the day I turned eighteen I went to the county clerk’s office and asked to see my adoption records. A clerk escorted me behind a closed door and proceeded to scold me, saying that my records were sealed and it was against the law to open them. “Your parents adopted you because they love you,” she said. “Now go home and be content with that.”
But I believed I had a right to know the name of my biological mother, so I didn’t give up. I lied to get the information I needed and discovered that she lived in the town where I’d grown up and that she had no other children.
Despite how determined I’d been to find her, it took me ten years to get up the nerve to write her a letter, which she never answered. I waited a few more years and wrote her again. Nothing. A few years after that, I wrote a third and final letter, telling her it was all right that she didn’t want to know me, but I’d appreciate it if she would send me her family medical history. Still no reply.
I decided to leave my birth mother alone, but whenever I visited my hometown, I would drive by her house: a small two-story on a tree-lined street. The front porch had been glassed in and was cluttered with knickknacks. One night I saw her sitting on the porch, reading. A lamp shining over her shoulder lit her face. I knew it was she because I had seen a picture of her in the newspaper years before. I parked in front of the house next door, got out, and went halfway up the neighbors’ walk, careful to stay out of the circle of illumination from their outdoor light. I stood in the dark for a long time and watched my birth mother read. Then I stepped into the circle of light. Only a driveway and a pane of glass separated me from the woman who’d given birth to me. If she’d looked up, she would have seen me. But she didn’t.
I continued my drive-bys whenever I was home for a visit, but I never saw my birth mother again. After she’d died, her friends tracked me down. They hadn’t known of my existence until they’d found my letters, stacked next to the reading chair on the glassed-in porch.
Lonnie Hull DuPont
Growing up in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee, I spent a lot of time on the front porch of our log house, where we’d shuck sweet corn and eat family dinners on summer evenings, or while away lazy weekends with friends.
Now I return to that porch for comfort whenever life’s pressures and disappointments threaten to overwhelm me. The view it provides of the mountains gives me a sense of stability. No matter what turmoil is going on in my life, those mountains are the same.
A few hours away, in southern West Virginia, my friend Maria has a different view from her front porch. Her house has been in her family for generations and was once tucked into a peaceful Appalachian hollow. In recent years, however, a big coal operation has ravaged the environment around her house, blowing up the mountaintops, burying the streams in debris, and turning the forests into a toxic moonscape.
Maria recently went to court and saved one valley from a swift and permanent burial. But jobs there are hard to come by, and when the mining company laid off part of its workforce in response to her legal action, some locals made threats against Maria. To protect her family, she has built a chain-link fence around her house. The day the workers erected it, she sat and cried. Meanwhile the mountains she sees from her front porch continue to come down.
A few months ago I dreamed that a coal company was blasting apart the mountains I can see from my parents’ porch, and I felt rage and sadness. I am working with Maria to try to save her mountains, because I know she would do the same for me.
Mary Anne Hitt
Growing up in an orphanage, I often felt like a prisoner. My only refuge was the courtyard of the old mission. I’d wait until late afternoon, when the tourists would be gone and the courtyard — filled with bougainvillea, flowering trellises, and bird song — would be all mine. Then I would squeeze my six-year-old body through an opening at the top of a barred window and drop down onto the clay tiles.
I could usually find a sizable cigarette butt in the sand-filled pot next to the entrance of the church. I would sneak up to the altar and light my cigarette with the flame of a devotional candle. Then I’d scurry up the steps to the bell tower and stand on the outer edge of the landing, where I couldn’t be seen, to smoke and feel the nicotine rush.
The bell-tower landing, because of its height and location next to the church’s main entrance, was a perfect vantage point from which to survey the valley below. It was my private sanctuary where I smoked and dreamed of running away. I wondered how far I could get before being caught. There were houses dotting the tops of the distant canyon walls, and I always imagined one of them was my grandmother’s home. If only I could get to her, I thought, I would be safe.
My grandmother actually did live somewhere in those hills, but I knew if I ran away, she would send me back. The only thing worse than being in the orphanage would have been the humiliation of having my grandmother reject me.
Francis Collin Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
The four of us — two sets of two brothers — shared a sleeping porch from 1949 to 1960. Not one of us ever thought to complain, even when we woke freezing at 3 A.M. despite our electric blankets, which were all set to 10 and plugged into one extension cord.
The unheated, uninsulated porch had just enough room for two metal bunk beds and two chests of drawers; no closet. We covered the windows with cardboard and rags to cut down on drafts. A single forty-watt bulb inside a milky white globe hung from the ceiling. (Sometimes the globe was shattered in the warfare among us.) We kept the floor swept and the beds made to boot-camp standards. During the Kansas winter the wind rattled the windowpanes and caused the curtains to dance; in the summer the heat left us gasping for any air we could capture from the one oscillating fan.
Our house was located near the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory, and when an inmate escaped, a siren would wail to warn the neighborhood. We once stayed up all night with trip ropes, hoping to catch an escapee and receive a reward. Another night I dreamed an escapee broke in and was coming toward my bed with a butcher knife raised. For months I slept with the covers over my head and my body pressed against the wall.
Today the others and I all live in upscale houses with large master-bedroom suites; none of us is any happier for it.
We were first cousins, a nineteen-year-old girl and a sixteen-year-old boy, entwined and panting on my parents’ Main Street front porch in small-town Alabama. I believe I still had my bra on, but the rest of our clothes were off. His tongue twirled there, where I’d never let a boy put his tongue before. My mouth sucked at him there. (I’d never made it with an uncircumcised boy before.) A few times headlights came slicing through the predawn gloom, and we cowered to avoid being spotted. Our bodies slapped against each other, the paint-peeled concrete scratching my back under his frenetic thrusting. We shouldn’t have been doing this: I had a boyfriend; he had a girlfriend. His mother was asleep not five feet away inside the house.
Suddenly the porch light blazed on above our heads, and he grabbed his clothes and ran around to the back of the house. I yanked my shirt over my head and followed him, bare bottomed, to the dark backyard, where he crouched in the dirt underneath the not-quite-finished back porch my dad was building. He pulled his clothing on while we laughed and convinced ourselves we’d gotten away with it. We talked for a while about the ethics of what we’d done — neither of us felt particularly guilt-ridden — and waited until we felt sure that whoever had turned on the lights was asleep. Then we went back inside.
In the morning no adults gave any indication they’d seen anything. I assume they’re still blissfully ignorant regarding the transgressions between first cousins on an open front porch in small-town Alabama.
No one spent much time on the front porch until I forbade smoking in the house. Then we put some chairs out there, and a coffee table with an ashtray, and the old couch, and a green dresser we didn’t have room for indoors. Before long my sixteen-year-old son, Ben, and his friends were hanging out on the porch every evening, smoking and drinking beer. A neighbor two houses down called the police whenever the kids stayed out there after ten. The police would drive by slowly with a floodlight and yell, “Keep it down!” The officers were probably as glad as I was to have the boys off the streets.
When Pat, my ex-husband, got sick and lost his place to live, he started sleeping on the old couch. The first morning I found him there, he apologized, and the next night he slept under the plum tree in the backyard. The kids and I agreed he could sleep on the porch while we looked for a place for him to stay. He would hoard food in the dresser and gripe about having been awakened by possums sniffing around for it. Then he started complaining about headaches and asking for cup after cup of coffee.
Pat was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and while he got care, my daughter Nora and I began to join Ben on the porch. Nora’s high-pitched, hysterical laugh brought the police quicker than ever. One night they said, “Couldn’t you just go inside?”
Pat died the following spring, and I repainted the porch, got rid of the couch and dresser, and bought some green plastic lawn chairs. A friend of Ben’s set up a grill in the driveway and taught Ben how to smoke salmon. I kept the scene under control by going out in my nightgown at 10 P.M. and standing there until everyone left.
As the years went by, Ben started a business selling newspaper subscriptions, and he and his subcontractors met on the porch in the late afternoons to relax with a smoke and a beer. One of his best salesmen was Dale, a Native American in his midfifties who spent long hours on the porch, philosophizing with anyone who would listen. Every time Dale saw me, he thanked me for letting him sit on my porch. He said it was a sacred spot. Ben told me Dale was fighting colon cancer and asked me to put up with him — it wouldn’t be for long. I did, and it wasn’t.
Now Ben lives with his girlfriend, but he and his friends still come over occasionally to sit on the porch and cook salmon. They’re of legal drinking age now, and better about using the ashtrays. The neighbor either has mellowed out or is losing his hearing. And I sleep right through it all.
In my last semester of college, I studied in India and kept an online journal so friends and family could keep up with my experiences. A stranger named Ruth found my journal by chance and became a regular reader of it. She was just a little younger than I was, and when I got back to the U.S., we started chatting by phone. Though I had decided to avoid entanglements with women for a while, Ruth and I became close. I was living with my parents that summer as I tried to find direction. With no job and few friends in the area, I was often depressed, and I’d question my worth. But I felt important to Ruth.
One day Ruth told me that another boy she’d been corresponding with had just died of a heart attack. She was inconsolable. He used to sing her to sleep over the phone, to help her deal with her insomnia and nightmares about her past. Now she asked me if I would sing to her.
I was not in the habit of singing for people, but Ruth’s persistence helped me overcome my anxiety. I went outside on the porch so no one else in the house would hear. It was dark and quiet on my suburban street, and the crickets were chirping as I sang Ruth a Smashing Pumpkins song called “Thirty-three.” She joked that my voice was terrible, but I could tell she was happy. I sang a few more songs I knew by heart, pausing after each to ask if she was still awake. She replied with progressively quieter cooing until she stopped responding altogether. Believing she had fallen asleep, I said good night and hung up. Before I could step into the house, the phone rang again.
“Alex?” Ruth said in a trembling voice. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I said.
I sang her to sleep two or three times a week after that. Later in the summer I visited her and held her all night on a hotel bed. Then we had a falling-out and stopped speaking to each other.
But I’ll never forget singing into the phone in the middle of the night on the porch of my parents’ house. On those nights I sang Ruth to sleep, I slept pretty well myself.
When I told my school therapist I was beginning to have suicidal thoughts, she convinced me to check into a mental hospital for four days. Sitting through my first group-therapy session, I felt like a recreational pot smoker at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I heard accounts of child molestation, prostitution, crack addiction, incest, and rape. All I suffered from was sadness. Afraid the other patients would laugh at my lack of real problems, I kept to myself.
When we weren’t in group therapy or in the art room making collages, the other patients and I spent our time in the TV room, where the television played only film classics and Law & Order. On one side of the room was a sort of indoor porch that was the only place patients were allowed to smoke. Many of them went in there ten to fifteen times a day. Large panes of glass allowed the nurses to monitor the smokers, and a loud but feeble exhaust vent on the ceiling carried away the fumes.
As the lone nonsmoker, I observed the others through the glass while I worked on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. Outside of the rectangular box, the patients barely spoke, but within it they became a sociable community of smokers, bumming cigarettes and gesturing as they talked. A few even smiled. I imagined they were sharing gripes about the tasteless food, the lame yoga classes, and the cranky nurses. People came in and out of the smokers’ porch so many times a day that the enclosure did little to keep smoke out of the rest of the TV room.
By the third day I was lonely, my jigsaw puzzle was almost complete, and I wanted to know what I had been missing inside the box. So I asked a visiting friend for a pack of Marlboro Lights.
After my friend had left, I entered the porch with lighter and cigarettes, sat down in an empty chair, and stared at the gold and white box in my hands, trying to remember the little ritual my smoker friends always performed before they opened a fresh pack.
“Does anyone know how to ‘pack’ this thing?” I asked.
Everyone laughed, and a white-haired bipolar man took the pack from me and banged the end against the windowsill for a long while, as if trying to do an especially good job to welcome the new smoker. When he gave me back my cigarettes, I took one out and lit it. Everyone watched me inhale and exhale. Then I smiled and passed my pack around the porch until it was empty.
Falls Church, Virginia
My mom was a single mother of four who struggled to give us a middle-class childhood on a poor family’s budget. She begged and borrowed for our voice, clarinet, and ballet lessons. After my dad had left, we lived in a series of rental houses with ineradicable roaches and old kitchen floors that were impossible to get clean. But I never thought of myself as poor, in part because we lived in houses and not apartments, and those houses all had porches.
The porch was our grand entrance and also the stage where I produced theater performances for the neighborhood: short plays based on fairy tales, or puppet shows behind a drape. Then my siblings and I discovered Really Rosie, a musical by Maurice Sendak and Carole King about a gang of kids who hang out on a stoop in Brooklyn. Every summer I organized a gaggle of neighborhood kids into a semblance of a cast, and I became Rosie: impresario, superstar, “terrific at everything,” to quote the title song.
I may have been just a poor kid with roaches in my bedroom, but I saw myself as the producer of dreams.
Santa Cruz, California
It would hit me hardest on the porch: the rocking chair now empty, the dominoes missing from the table. One morning a resident would stay in bed rather than shuffle downstairs in robe and slippers to sit and watch the pedestrians rush past with strollers and briefcases. In the small Washington, D.C., hospice where I worked after graduation, nothing could cement a loss like a porch chair’s sudden emptiness.
That hospice porch was a liminal space between bed and street. It’s where I learned about cyclical poverty, the injustice of the prison system, and the human capacity for love. The residents and I would enjoy each other’s company with a cigarette in one hand, iced tea in the other, and bird song from somewhere over our shoulders.
The porch was where I learned to sew by watching my mother “run up a seam” on my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. During the Christmas season we put up a small decorated tree out there. In the summer the porch was where we played games, read books, ate drippy popsicles, and sometimes slept.
Best of all, the porch was a spot from which I could spy on the neighbors. I was painfully shy and too vain to wear my glasses in public. On our porch, though, I could privately put on my specs and see what the older kids were doing.
The neighbors next door were by-the-book Catholics with four kids. Their daughter Patty was eight years older than I, and my mother and I would watch the mostly male guests arrive at her twice-monthly parties. My mother said that Patty’s parents were shopping for a husband for her. It worked: she got married before she hit twenty and produced twin daughters within a year.
Later, when I was in high school, I would watch the boys come to visit Terry, the neighbor’s youngest and my friend. She went to an all-girls Catholic school and was growing up much faster than I was. Boys, including one I had a crush on, cruised our street hoping to see Terry on her porch. When she was there, they’d park their bikes or cars and go into her house. I’d sit on my porch, feeling unlovable and curious about how Terry attracted so many suitors.
In the spring of our senior year, I heard through the grapevine that Terry was pregnant. This was the 1960s, and she had to drop out of high school and get married.
My mother told me that when my date picked me up for the prom later that spring, Terry and her mother were watching from their porch.
Mary Beth Eckels
When I was just out of college, my future husband, Scott, and I took a road trip across the country. We borrowed a friend’s car, packed our camping gear, and drove east, headed for the Atlantic Ocean. Stopping in Rome, Georgia, we witnessed a Ku Klux Klan rally. A parade of people led by men in white robes marched to the steps of city hall, their freedom of speech protected by police officers of many races. On the sidelines we struck up a conversation with a group of teenage counterdemonstrators, and they invited us to go camping with them that evening.
As we were following them out of town, a speeding car broadsided us. We were unharmed, but our vehicle was a disaster, and we had no money to fix it. The teenagers, who lived on the third floor of an old apartment building, told us we could stay on their large, sagging balcony while we decided what to do.
To get to the balcony we had to climb out a window in the hall. Laying out our sleeping bags on the wooden floor, we slept in the open, humid air, looking across the roofs and church steeples of downtown Rome. A family of bats lived under an eave, and if we woke early, we could watch them swoop back into their hole. During the day Scott and I wandered Rome, trying to stay cool and stretch our last few dollars. The teens worked all day and smoked pot half the night. We went camping with them, and swimming in a river, and once we rode out to the countryside, where they sold drugs to rural teenagers.
Finally an old college friend of mine who lived in Atlanta came to pick us up. I will never forget waking up one morning on the balcony to the sound of my friend’s voice calling my name from three stories down. Lying next to me was the man I was falling in love with. The sun had come up, and we were going to make it to the Atlantic Ocean after all.
© Andrew E. Eschbacher
Pretty Penny was the name of Helen Hayes’s Victorian mansion on the banks of the Hudson River. An Academy Award–winning actress, Ms. Hayes rented her mansion to my parents while she was on tour. With seventeen rooms and two porches running the length of the house, it was the perfect getaway from a Manhattan heat wave. My father had been diagnosed with encephalitis, and my mother thought that the house would be good therapy for him. The grounds had a heated, Olympic-size swimming pool; a tennis court; and a rolling lawn that stretched down to the river.
The back porch’s terrazzo floor was cool even on the hottest summer days. I’d stretch out on a lounge chair there with a book in my hand, though I spent more time watching the boats sailing up and down the river than I did reading. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band played over and over on the phonograph in the background: “Picture yourself in a boat on a river / with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.” In late afternoon I’d hear tires on the gravel, announcing my father’s arrival home from work. I’d run through the house and throw my arms around him and kiss him. He was still tall and handsome, but he looked tired.
Every afternoon he’d change into his bathing suit and walk down to the pool. In college he’d swum competitively, and whatever imbalance he suffered vanished as he glided the length of the pool. Afterward he’d put on a loose-fitting shirt and khaki pants, and we’d sit on the porch sipping cool drinks. I’d chatter about my part-time job at an advertising agency, trying to draw him out of his sadness. As if he hadn’t been listening, he’d say, “I know that the doctors think I’m going to be fine, but I just feel strange. I’m here, but I’m not.” He thought he had a brain tumor. I was scared he might be right.
He was. By the following summer he was confined to a wheelchair except when he was lifted into the swimming pool. I’d watch from the porch as he floated on his back, reaching one arm and then the other over his head while his legs trailed uselessly behind him.
Because he could no longer see, I’d read to him on the porch from historical novels by James Michener or Herman Wouk. Sometimes I could hardly get the words out. The doctors had told us that my father had less than six months to live, but we never revealed this to him. He’d say, “I bet by next winter I’ll be skating again. We’ll go to Rockefeller Center. I’m sure of it.”
“I’d like that, Dad,” I’d reply.
We buried him that winter. He was fifty-two.
Los Angeles, California
The summer I was pregnant with my second child, my husband and I left our toddler son, Zachory, with my parents for a week while we celebrated our anniversary at the Oregon coast. Their house, a midcentury ranch with a wraparound deck, was nestled in old-growth evergreens at the end of a rutted gravel lane, with no neighbors in sight.
Zachory was learning to use the bathroom that summer, and to save work laundering his training pants, Mom encouraged him to pee between the wooden deck rails into the yard. By the time we retrieved him, our son needed a diaper only at night.
A week later at the mall in Portland, we were slurping sodas on the upper level, an arm’s length from the ironwork railing, when little Zachory marched up to the rail and dropped his shorts. We narrowly prevented him from urinating on the unsuspecting shoppers below.
Melonie Simnitt Ferguson
I remember the peeling gray paint on the steps that led to my elderly neighbor’s porch. She would give my cousin and me cellophane-wrapped candies to suck on as we sat in her porch swing. The chains attached to the rafters were rusty, and the seat was cracked and would pinch us if we weren’t careful. At first my cousin and I had been reluctant to visit this dusty, childless place, but the promise of sweets won us over. We would sing songs to each other and swing so high our feet grazed the porch railing.
One day a young man came out of the house and watched us pump on the swing. “That’s my swing, you know,” he said. Then he went back inside, the screen door banging behind him.
A few days later a drizzle brought us back to the porch for shelter. I was pushing my cousin on the swing when I saw the blinds twitch in a window. Then the screen door opened, and the young man grabbed the swing’s chain, bringing it to a halt. He said we’d awakened him from a nap: “My bedroom’s right there.” He nodded in the direction of a window at the end of the porch. When he let go of the chain, my cousin jumped out of the swing and ran down the steps.
“Hey, don’t run away!” he called to her. He said he had a surprise for us in the house.
My cousin turned and looked back at me with a scared expression, as if she were about to wail. I felt my pulse beating against my collar and took a step away from the man, who beckoned me inside.
“Come on. I got some ice cream in here.”
I heard my cousin’s footsteps across the grass.
“It’s OK,” he said. “My mother isn’t home. She won’t know you came in.”
He held the door open, and I ducked in under his arm. The air in the kitchen was moist and heavy. He went to the freezer and got out a carton of ice cream fuzzy with ice crystals.
“Neapolitan,” he said, smiling at me. “A little bit of each? Or all of one flavor?”
“A little of each,” I said.
He scooped the ice cream into a bowl, and I took it. It smelled of vegetables. Disappointed, I set it on the table.
“Sorry. My mother’s been gone for a couple of weeks, so it’s probably not so good.” He lowered himself into a crouch before me, his face inches from mine. “That won’t ruin our friendship, will it?” His eyes were shiny blue stones, and his hand reached under my skirt and pulled my underpants down to my knees.
“That’s a good girl,” he murmured as his finger probed the folds of my body. A sudden, bright dart of pain propelled my hands to his wrist, and I pushed him away from me. His eyes widened, and his lips stretched across moist teeth. When I’d pulled up my underwear and straightened my skirt, he opened the door and said softly, “You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?”
I paused, my hand on the screen-door latch, and whispered, “No.”
My family’s porch had a rattan love seat just big enough for two teenagers. It was the perfect place to prolong a date, kissing good night until our lips were puffy and our skin was flushed. While my parents slept upstairs, the boy and I would fumble and maneuver in the dim light, continuing what we’d started on the front seat of his ’72 Firebird.
Determined to become the best lover any guy had ever been with, I hit the books to study the art. By my junior year in high school I’d read The Sensuous Woman, a classic of Victorian porn called The Autobiography of a Flea, and Erica Jong’s bestseller Fear of Flying — until the latter was ripped from my hands at the breakfast table by an alert parent. While my peers set their sights on becoming homecoming queen or head cheerleader, I secretly yearned for the title of Girl Most Likely to Sleep Her Way to the Top. The top of what, I did not know. My role models were Mata Hari, Mae West, and Anaïs Nin.
I never went all the way, both because it scared me and because, being a good Catholic girl, I knew next to nothing about birth control. Everything else was on the menu, though, and many a boy swaggered home in triumph.
Once my parents got wise to my porch antics, they ran an extension cord out there and set up a light bright enough to perform surgery by. When that didn’t deter me, they took out the love seat and replaced it with two metal folding chairs on either side of a table.
I returned to that house as a grown woman after my parents had sold it to a young couple. I couldn’t linger; the memories made me dizzy. The only place I stopped for long was the porch, now furnished with a comfortable rocking chair and a small chest filled with toddler toys. Seeing the toys, I thought, This is what comes of lovemaking. I hoped that I’d infused the place with erotic energy, and that the couple had conceived their baby on a hot summer night on the porch.
I’d decided to put a back porch on my house myself, using how-to books. It wasn’t long before I ran into problems and called my seventy-eight-year-old father, who began making the 120-mile round trip in his pickup every weekend to help me out.
He and I had often been at odds when I was young. I had no interest in tools, and he hated my long hair and threatened to make me wear a dress. He’d grown up without a father, and I — his oldest — bore the brunt of his mistakes as he learned how to parent. When I’d moved back home briefly after college, we’d had a fistfight in the kitchen over the right way to run the dishwasher.
Now, under a July sun, we poured concrete footings and notched two-by-eights. Each time we encountered an obstacle that I was sure was insurmountable, my father, who’d spent his life working with his hands, concocted a way around it. We labored side by side, covered in sweat and sawdust, though he could no longer swing a hammer or climb higher than the first rung on a ladder, because years of operating a jackhammer had given him bad knees and shoulders. He told me stories I’d never heard about his childhood and what it had been like for him to arrive in the U.S. from Ireland in 1948 with, as he put it, “a suitcase that weighed more than I did.”
It occurred to me, as the porch went up around us, that I ought to apologize for having been a jerk as a kid, or ask him if he was afraid of dying or whether he still felt the same depth of devotion to the Catholic Church after all the scandals. These were the sort of weighty issues I thought a middle-aged son ought to address with his aging father. But I couldn’t get the words out. Isn’t it enough, I asked myself, that we’re together, building something that will outlast us both?
Then I stepped on a nail. Pain shot up my leg, but I insisted we keep working. He told me to go get a tetanus shot.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
“It’s far from nothing,” he replied. “You ought to know better, with your education.”
“I’m fine,” I said as I limped over to the table saw.
“That foot might come in handy in years to come,” he said.
I dismissed it once more, and he gave a slow shake of his head. To him I was still his pigheaded son, and there wasn’t much he could do about it. It was that head shake, more than anything he said, that changed my mind.
By the time I returned from getting the tetanus shot, he’d cleared the work area of nails and scrap lumber. We spent the remainder of the afternoon working and trading small talk. I left the heavy issues for another day, and he didn’t bring up my stubbornness.
My housemate Deb and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi in the mid-1990s. That small African nation didn’t have a single TV station at the time, but who needs TV when you’ve got a view of a national park from your porch?
It was a small porch by African colonial-era standards but large enough for a strategically hung hammock and a set of hand-woven — and termite-ridden — rattan furniture. From the porch we could look out over ten kilometers of woodlands and settlements leading into Blantyre, the country’s largest city. At night, as we sat in the dark during one of the frequent power outages, we could see civilization still awash with light not far away. In the afternoons we could watch as the curtain of gray that marked the first rains of the season approached from the south.
The real show, though, was the families of genets and bush babies that lived in our roof and would head into the forest to forage every evening. The bush babies, small primates with big eyes and surprisingly heavy feet (or so they sounded on our tin roof), would gallop the length of the house and into the forest along our electrical wire. The genets, which looked like a cross between a spotted cat and a weasel with a striped tail, would slither out from under the eaves above the hammock and drop into the adjacent tree.
We sometimes had to assert ownership of the porch by fending off the baboons, who also seemed to appreciate the fine view and the furniture but often left unwanted souvenirs of their visits. The least-welcome visitors, though, were the pair of puff adders who decided our front steps were a comfortable place to hang out for a few days. These beautiful but deadly snakes scared our neighbor — for good reason — and it was all we could do to keep her from walloping them with a shovel. The genets, relatives of the mongoose, seemed to delight in harassing the adders: genet feigns a lunge, adder strikes left; genet nips right; adder glowers. We may not have had a TV, but we had a National Geographic special on our front porch every day.
Just out of community college and sick of waitressing, I boldly joined the U.S. Navy. Within two weeks of the moment the idea had crept into my head, I was on a plane headed for boot camp and already realizing that I had made a mistake. I was an artsy, sensitive loner of a girl; there was no way I could survive four years of “adventure.”
After the misery of boot camp, I was stationed on a ship based in Norfolk, Virginia. I worked in a dirty machinery shop with ten men and no women, and I slept in a dusty bunk, where I was plagued by nightmares. I felt stifled by the uninteresting work, good-ol’-boy mentality, ridiculous military lingo, and unnecessary “look busy” practices.
After a few months of sinking lower and lower into depression, I realized that if I didn’t venture out into the rest of the ship — which was home to fifteen hundred people — I would not last. I did wander out and eventually found my lifeline in Mike, Brent, Eric, Tom, and Damon, or “Los Guys,” as they called themselves. They were funny and intelligent and welcomed me into their group, even though I was the only woman.
Brent and Mike got a place off base, a third-floor hole-in-the-wall apartment in the roughest of neighborhoods, and it became our salvation. Every evening those of us who had the good fortune not to be on duty would meet on the apartment’s screened-in porch, which overlooked two overflowing dumpsters and an abandoned lot littered with candy-bar wrappers and old newspapers. The porch reeked of cheap beer and stale cigarettes, and we did our part to maintain the smell as we laughed and swore about our horrible days. We’d cook burgers on a hibachi grill and fall asleep on the floor next to the empty beer cans, or else talk until the sun came up and it was time to go back to the ship.
Dina M. Spice
I grew up on a busy street in a Wisconsin town. At one end was the steeple of Saints Peter and Paul; at the other, a red-bricked tavern called Eileen’s.
My parents were young and struggling to raise my brother and me in a tough blue-collar neighborhood. As hard as they tried, however, they could not shield us from certain realities: a dog shot dead across the street by someone with a grudge; a boy we knew beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend; a playmate left to fend for herself while her mother drank at Eileen’s.
But then there were those long summer evenings when my mom sat out on the front porch to smoke, and the neighbors would gather. The larger the crowd, the later I could stay outside to play. I felt free to run in the dark without fear, knowing the adults were there. When my games had ended, I’d sit tight against my mom on the porch steps and listen to the gossip and ribbing. Though I could rarely follow the twists and turns of the adults’ stories, I laughed whenever they did, our chorus of voices filling the night sky.
One regular was Louise, whom we called “Weezie.” Whenever she saw my mother on the porch, she would walk out of her dilapidated house, hobble across the busy street, and immediately fire off a complaint about one of her eight kids or her alcoholic husband, whose disability checks supported them all. Every now and then Weezie would send one of her sons to Dairy Queen for a bagful of Dilly Bars: ice cream frozen on sticks and dipped in a sweet, waxy coating. She always made sure there was one for each of us.
Today I live in a progressive college town that takes the idea of community very seriously. In summer I sit on my back porch and read in the privacy of my fenced backyard. Anytime I’ve sat on the front porch, I’ve been alone.