The people you know when you are ten, when you think about them later, seem to have just appeared in your life. There is no particular moment when you met them: not there when you were nine, still there at twelve; there for one day or many days after, but not before.
My friend Calla was like that. She was just there, in the same way that she was just 'Calla.' If she had been named after the lily, we didn't know or think about it. She wasn't a noun. Whatever flower she might have been named after didn't grow in the rural gardens we knew. Stalled poverty hung over that working class neighborhood where nobody read and the houses emptied themselves each morning. Maybe a grandmother in a tiny house up the street had a garden; everyone else had cars and dogs and paths through the grass, Popsicle wrappers, can lids, drying dandelions and the occasional garter snake. I was bored then, but at least it was only for the summer; those yards lived and breathed boredom.
The time I usually think of when I think of Calla was August. And the warm beer fog that rolled out of her mother when she came home, too happy or too angry at her house, her children, her job or something else we hadn't factored in. A big-faced woman.
When I first knew the family there was a dad. Later various men stayed there, all kinds of men, mostly small, nervous or stupid men. Even at our age we felt superior to them. She never went to their place, she always brought them home. Once she blurted with a loud, beery laugh that she got pregnant every time a man hung his pants on the bedpost. But as far as I knew there were only the four kids from Calla's dad and there was no bedpost.
One Friday night late, the man staying there came down to the rec room in the basement where Calla and I were in sleeping bags watching horror movies on TV. He stood there, smiling and smiling, his hands in his pockets. We looked at him, an interruption in the movie. Claude Rains laughed maniacally. The man went back upstairs.
The house was a lesson in latent care. Clothes were washed but not ironed, separated on the basement floor into piles of clean and not-yet-washed. It was somebody's job to sort them. The kitchen was a rotating responsibility of powdered milk, cereal and soup.
Blankets tacked to the 2x4's in the unfinished attic marked the boundaries of bedrooms. There were no curtains on the windows.
Their place was four blocks away from ours, easy to get to through a couple of backyards. Going there never rose to the level of a visit-it was just a different place to be. It countered the long afternoons alone with the sounds of a redwing blackbird declaring space or a delusional dog barking. Even the tentative success of that house was a diversion.
Calla's older brother was a brute. Once when she was younger he threw her on the bed up among the 2x4's and looked at her all over. She told me about it in a way that didn't seem as if it had happened to her. Craig was about 15 when his mother shouted at him for taking a beer out of the refrigerator and he slugged her. The next day his uncle, a navy man, came over and beat him up. He moved out after a couple sullen, dangerous days, one of the people who make you want to have curtains.
Her mother eventually re-married, to a widower with two kids. Bill was retired and nice and ran the house with schedules and assignments and pay-for-work allowances. I went on to another grade in school, one year behind Calla.
The next July Calla went with us on a long car trip to my Uncle's in Utah.
Utah was even hotter and drier than I'd imagined. In the morning we helped with chores and in the afternoon we rode the horses all over the dry scrubland behind Cedar City. If we got back to the house before everyone else, we went into my Uncle's bedroom and leafed through his True Detective magazines. As the afternoon died quietly, we sat on the floor staring at photos of murders, rapes and bondage.
The drive home seemed longer and hotter. The roads were straight and endless and littered with dead rabbits. It seemed as if no one spoke for days. I looked out the window and silently hummed every song I could think of.
As we crossed into Washington, my dad turned on the radio. We were listening and not listening. I was humming. At the hour, there was a news story from the Washington Coast where a little girl had drowned and her mother had run from the beach and drowned trying to save her. The stepfather couldn't swim and watched from shore. The family lived in Seattle; a daughter was vacationing with friends and had not yet been located.
I don't know if they would report this the same way now. It seems to me they wait. When they gave the names of the dead, my dad pulled the car over and my mother and I changed places so she could sit with Calla and hold her. I looked back once. My mother was trying not to cry, but Calla neither tried nor didn't try. She never cried at all.
No one was home at her house and the doors were locked. My mother suggested she stay at our place until someone came home, but Calla ran off to the back of the house. I chased her, as if she had slipped her tether, but stopped when she began beating on the window of the door to the laundry room. She beat it until it broke apart. Then she reached in, opened the door, and let it slam behind her. My mother came around the side of the house then and went in after her. I folded myself down on the ground outside, my chin on my knees, and stared at the empty window and the closed door.
Later that evening Bill showed up and we went home. I went on to junior high. We sold the house and moved. When my parents divorced I tried to comfort my mother as if it were something I'd just heard about on the radio.
I never hear from Calla, I have no idea where she is. I can't remember if she cut her hands on that glass window. But I still think about her and her house, her sister and brother, her mother and those long, hopeless summers.
About the author:
Kathryn Rantala is founder and co-editor of Snow Monkey. Her book, Missing Pieces, is available from the Snow Monkey website: http://www.ravennapress.com.