Northgate Park (Sheds)
We stored odds and ends out there: boxes of records, Len’s old tricycle, garden tools we didn’t use, a box of button-down work shirts we couldn’t stand to get rid of, a gilded frame too heavy to hang on the wall.
I used to send Len to the shed to grab things we needed — the Christmas tree stand, a box of old blankets we gifted to a neighbor with a new baby, the industrial fan that kept flies off our porch in the summertime. But he was eleven and didn’t like chores. We fought. I’m doing long division, he would say, bent over his desk. Your father never complained about chores, I would say back. Always, in the end, he would stomp out to the shed, returning with cheeks flushed, thrusting at me whatever it was I had requested.
Later, I would understand that the shed had frightened him.
Then there was that time in April when I opened up the garage door to a shining path leading straight out the back of the shed. Instantly, I was eight years old, with a wild and yearning eight-year-old heart, utterly convinced of Narnia and other, better worlds beyond this one. Then, I let go of the pull on the garage door, the light shifted, and the gilded mirror appeared where the lighted pathway had been. It was early dawn and I felt the full weight of the years to come. I understood that a childhood is a single flash of light in an otherwise dark place.
I left the garage door open, even with dusk coming, and ran across the yard to find Len.
He followed me there and I let him. We were playing hide-and-seek but not the kind where you really hide. It was more like tag, except he was a teenager and too old to play kids’ games. I was twelve but almost thirteen and had scabs on my knees from falling on the playground.
Found you, he said, and his shadow fell across the slant of sun that almost reached my bare toes. We breathed together through the pollen. Then he stepped in and put his hand over my bare neck. I’d had the vague notion he might kiss me, practicing with my Barbie dolls under the bed just the night before. Instead, he pulled my head back by the hair with his free hand and moved the hand at my throat to the skin beneath my shirt. He groped my braless chest and pinched the skin there, searching for something. I held my breath.
Later, I would wonder where he learned a gesture like this, how he thought to pull back my hair to pull my chest up towards him. I wondered if he had seen this on television, or if his father had done this to his mother. I let myself pity him, even as I tried to figure out a name for what he had done to me.
After my chest, he pushed his hand into the waistband of my jeans. I watched his face, the jut of his chin, the blue burn of his eyes. I tried to recognize him as I felt his fingertips at the elastic band of my underpants. I did not say stop. I did not say Ricky. I didn’t say anything. He pulled hard at the waistband of my jeans and my knees buckled so that I slumped, for a second, against him. There was a quiet shuffling in the dust beneath us that sounded as if it was coming from someplace else. Then I righted myself and he pulled away, putting both hands up in the air like we were were playing cops and robbers.
What are you doing in here Ginny, he said, before he walked back out, into the yard, down the alley we played in as kids, to the back door of his own house where his mom was making him dinner.
I reached out to where my bike was hanging on the wall and ran my fingers through the plastic streamers — pink and gold, yellow dust. I lifted my bike off the wall and wondered at how light it felt in my arms. Then I wheeled my bike into the yard and rode it down the alley, discovering that the bell on the handlebars still worked as I raced past Ricky’s back door.
At the end of alley, I want to keep going, to speed out onto the blacktop and down the hill, which I am forbidden to do. I sit there on the seat of my bike, toes ready to push off, until the sun almost sets. Then I turn and head down the alley, past Ricky’s door and then to mine. Instead of hanging my bike back up in the shed like I’m supposed to, I leave it on its side in the leaves outside the door, because who cares is what I tell myself. At the back door, I look back at it lying there in the yard, and I wish for someone to come and steal it.
It was my grandfather — a man I never met — who brought gramma here, first to Fayetteville, where he was stationed, and then to this brick ranch where they could walk to their jobs at the telephone company. They moved in and never left. My mother was born here and her brother Jimmy, too. Jimmy moved to Georgia as a teenager and my mother moved north as soon as she turned eighteen. Until this summer, I always assumed there was some secret, some terrible thing that had made her leave, wondered if that secret was the reason gramma always came to us and we never went to her. Now, I wonder if it was just the heat.
It melts into everything, expanding the floorboards so their seams push up under your feet, wilting flowers before they’re done blooming, hanging in a haze over the blacktop.
Back home, summer is when I feel most alive. Here, summer is the season of death. You can smell rot coming off the trees, sweet and undiscriminating, blanketing everything. The heat here has no shame, is not apologetic, exerts no effort as it smothers you.
Your mother never could get used to it, gramma says, not elaborating on how that could be, considering she’d never known anything else. But I speculate that some people just aren’t made for a climate like this one. Gramma’s skin is paper dry and smooth. She reads the paper on the porch and shoos flies with her free hand. She drinks lemonade without ice and does not sweat.
Gramma’s house has no A/C and a million ancient fans that blow hot air in your face from every corner. The windows stay open but nothing blows in. Even in the evenings, the curtains are still, moving only imperceptibly to the screaming vibration of the cicadas. In the morning, clouds skim across the sky in a white glare.
Your gramma is dying, my mother says when I call and tell her I can’t take it anymore. By which she means, stay. by nine am, the air is unbreathable. I lie in my twin bed and sweat into the sheets, tell myself that heat can’t kill a healthy thirty-something woman. Gramma comes to the doorway and sighs. I have been here three and a half weeks, twenty-five days and going on twenty-six nights, and still I cannot say enough terrible, god awful things about the heat. Even when I am not speaking of it, I am sighing it, exhaling it, mourning the summer I should have had on green grass under cool blue skies.
Come, she says. I follow her across the bright strip of lawn, squinting, to the garage out back, really just a shed now, with dirt floor, a small window, and one entire door missing. In the back corner, beneath a collection of North Carolina license plates — and one from Michigan — there is a hammock. It is old and I tug at it, wondering if it will hold my weight. It lets out of a cloud of dust motes and they twirl through the air, lazy and slow. I know without asking that the hammock was my mother’s. Your grandfather liked it out here, too, gramma said, this time of year. I watch her slow crossing of the yard, her slow ascent up the back porch steps, hear the click of the back screen door.
It takes some arranging to settle yourself in a hammock if you’ve never done it before, but I manage. The trick is to move slowly, a thing I’d learned in spades during my almost full month in the south. Then, you just let yourself sink in. The hammock swings back and forth with my weight and I feel something from beneath me I almost don’t recognize at first — the cool of the dark earth rising right up out of the ground. I moan like a teenager finding her first orgasm.
Later, I walk into the kitchen, my arms and legs tattooed by the hammock’s diamond weave, and find my gramma at the table working a crossword and sipping lukewarm lemonade. She pulls out the chair beside her, welcoming me like I’ve just arrived.