Chapter Eight: History Lesson
Three days prior to Christmas, my father unceremoniously announced to my mother, he wouldn’t be spending the holiday with us. It was the tradition in our family to get up early and open gifts from Santa (for those of us who were still young enough to receive them, which meant Eli alone). Then, we’d open gifts from the immediate family. We followed this with our yearly Christmas breakfast, typically a feast. It wouldn’t be until well after the noon hour, after lounging about or a much deserved nap, that we’d pack up and head down to my grandmother’s – my mom’s mother – house and spend the remainder of the day with the extended family.
Apparently, this year, my dad had other plans.
I remember hearing my parents talking in the living room, while I finished cleaning up after myself. I had made a small mess making a “before-bed” PB&J and was wiping down the counter with paper towel dampened with a few sprays of disinfecting Fabuloso when my mother’s disapproving tones made me come up short.
She had used the same tone she’d used on us kids countless times, deep, resonating from the back of her throat. It was a warning, an indication of discontentment, when employed it usually garnered immediate results. But, that was with my siblings and me. I had yet to hear her use it on my father, and that was what made my hand stop in mid-motion. I had “waxed-on”, but entirely forgot to “wax-off”.
“So, that’s it, huh?” she had said to him.
A brief silence ensued. Then, “What’re you griping about, Pillar?”
There it was - the use of her first name through a clenched jaw. This wasn’t a good sign.
“She’s finally pulled you completely away from this family.” It was a statement of fact. The tone remained intact.
There was little hesitation this time. “You better watch yourself, Pillar. I’m not in the mood to deal with your shit.”
“Why is that, Leonard? You already taking enough of her shit, huh? Are you tired? Are you overwhelmed?” The sarcasm was thick enough to cut with a knife.
I could sense this conversation was about to take a turn for the worst. I had seen them traverse down this path before, though my mom had never been this defiant. I let the paper towel fall from my grasp and stepped toward the threshold of the kitchen.
I saw my father stand, the back of his knees pushing the couch with enough force to make it thud against the wall. The window panes above vibrated in their frames.
My mother was seated in the overstuffed recliner. She was sitting upright, her feet tucked under her rear end. She wasn’t looking at my dad, though. She was watching the television, an elbow upon the armrest, hand cupping her chin.
I leaned into the doorframe leading to the dining room, soundless, waiting.
My father turned toward her, his fists balled, his face turning from a drunk-man’s pink to red. “When are you gonna learn to keep your fucking mouth shut?”
My mom didn’t waste any time. “Probably around the same time you stop opening the legs of other women.” She never so much as glanced his way.
My dad went bright crimson, the cords on his neck standing out, his fingers made white from the pressure he exuded upon them. “Fucking bitch!” he snarled, taking a step toward her.
I had seen enough. I could see something diabolical floating behind his eyes. I could tell by the way he bunched his shoulders slightly, the way the muscles in his back were no doubt tensing. He was going to hurt her. I came from the doorframe, striding into the dining room, past the hutch, beside the table.
My mother must’ve sensed something as well. Her head came up from her palm. She grabbed the armrests with each hand. “Don’t you come near me, Leonard.” She’d seen it too.
“Since when do you tell me what the fuck to do?” he asked huskily, gaining momentum, his fists still clenched.
My mom scooted further into the large chair. “Get away from me, you bastard!”
I was about to run, feeling that sickening sensation I felt every time I knew for certain my father was going to strike my mother. I came around the table, intent on stepping bodily between them, but never got the chance.
Instead, I heard a resounding slap!
I was expecting to hear my Mom cry out in pain like she had so many times before. But, I was astonished when a very male grunt followed. It was my father who stumbled backward.
My eyes trained upon my mom. I was confused. What had just happened?
She hadn’t moved. Her fingernails were still embedded within the thick fabric of the chair. Her feet were still underneath her. She was still cringing.
My dad regained his balance, a hand holding the left side of his face. From between his fingers I could see the angry welts the blow to his face had produced. They appeared on the verge of bleeding. Whatever hit him had done so with incredible power.
“How dare you raise your hand to me, you little cunt!” my father screamed. He looked insane with fury. His hair had been jarred from its’ usual coif and flounced with meandering locks atop his head, about the edges of his face. His eyes were as wide as golf balls, and shot through with throbbing veins.
From behind, I heard Valerie flee her bedroom, her footfalls receding as she made her way to the stairs, to the second floor and Elijah. She was going to make sure he was as far from the fray as possible. She had done this so many times, it was routine. It didn’t break my concentration in the least.
He flew toward my mother, murder in his gaze, his hand balled, raised above his head.
“STAY AWAY FROM ME!!!” wailed my mom. She was on her knees now, covering her face with her arms.
I was there. I put myself in front of my mother, blocking her from his view, more than ready to take whatever sort of punch he was about to throw. After he hit me, the floodgates would be overtopped, the reason to hold back would become irrelevant. I could strike back. I could hit him back. It would be self-defense. There would be nothing he could do about it. I would finally have the excuse to beat the living shit out of him. I would -.
I saw it, though I couldn’t explain it. I can’t sit here and say I can adequately explain it now, even after all these years. All I can say, with a modicum of certainty, was something hit him a second time, upon the other side of the face. It didn’t sound slap-like. The sound was too deep. It was bone-deep, solid enough to affect things below surface tissue. I saw his lip burst, his teeth flood with blood, his cheek turn fiery red. His neck twisted away from the impact, making his shoulders follow in turn. His forward motion altered by the sheer kinetic ferocity of the… punch?
Had someone punched him? Someone I couldn’t see?
He staggered to one side, his feet unsteady, his knees buckling. He could barely manage to stay upright.
“W-w-what was that?” asked my mom, her voice trembling with terror.
“I don’t know,” was all I could think to say, but I didn’t want to stick around to find out either. I swiftly bent down and pulled my Mom from the chair, and ushered her upstairs before my father could recover.
We stayed up in my room – my sister, my little brother, my mother and I – talking quietly about anything other than what had happened downstairs, waiting.
About twenty minutes later we heard the front door slam. My father had left.
He didn’t return for nearly a week.
Needless to say, it was one of the best Christmases of my young life. All it took was for something unnatural to clock my father across the face.
Hmm, who knew?
Some weeks later, in the dawn of the new year - a Sunday - my mom came bursting into my room, her voice high-pitched and thrilled. “Jerry, you are not going to believe what I f -.”
It was as far as she got.
Unfortunately, Myra and I had been enjoying a pretty hot and heavy make-out session, and… well, she’d walked in on us devouring each other’s faces, our hands on butt-cheeks and breasts and what not.
“Eeew!” she squeaked, breaking our savaging of one another. “I’m sorry!” She had as if to back out.
I could tell she was upset. Seeing Myra with her shirt pulled up around her neck didn’t help either. I got up as my girlfriend quickly readjusted herself. Though, my mom had been the one busting-in on us, I still felt bad. Maybe as remorseful as a seventeen-year-old could feel while experiencing the full-blown urges of puberty. Plus, I had a willing partner, which made things even more tempting. So, I guess I was actually somewhere between regret that she’d caught us and frustrated with myself for not having heard her come up the stairs or walk down the hall. I’d been caught up in the moment.
“You two shouldn‘t be behaving that way,” she said when she found her voice.
“Sorry.” It was Myra, speaking for the both of us.
My mother looked disappointed when her eyes met mine. A moment later, grim determination settled within. “I hope you both realize there is more to being together with someone than just being physical with them.” Her orbs were burning and found us individually.
I felt my face twist, admonished. “Mom.”
Why did it have to sound like a plea?
“This isn’t all we do, Mrs. Favor,” ventured Myra, trying to explain, but the way she worded it, it sounded like she was admitting we did more than merely make out. She made it seem like we sometimes screwed our brains out.
I winced. I knew she was trying to alleviate some of my mother’s worry, but she… well, sometimes, especially when we were young, Myra lacked the words necessary to get her point across.
She had placed us on ground that was more unstable than ever.
My mother raised her eyebrows. “Are you having sex with my son?”
I felt my jaw hit the floor. Though, I’d been thinking along the same line of thought, never in a million years did I think my mom would actually voice the question. Specifically, one of that nature.
Myra’s eyes bulged out of their sockets. She blushed furiously.
“Well, that certainly answers my question.” She made to leave, but again stopped as a second thought crossed her mind. “Are you using protection?”
My girlfriend and I exchanged an uneasy glance.
I didn’t know what to do. I was typically honest with my mother. We’d always had an open relationship. I always told her what I was feeling, how I was feeling, etc. We just hadn’t broached the subject of sex in detail yet, and the gap it had forged between us was showing. I swallowed. If I lied now, she would never trust us. That left only one thing left, right?
“We haven’t actually gone…” I paused to swallow again. I saw Myra bow her head at the corner of my peripheral vision. “We haven’t done it yet, but -.” I couldn’t continue.
“You were tempted?” prompted my mom.
My face was stricken.
“You tried?” Her voice cracked.
I could only nod.
She crossed her arms below her breasts, filling and un-filling with a great huffs of air.
I was chewing the inside of my cheek, more nervous than I could ever remember. My father, during one of his rages, hadn’t affected me like this. Maybe it was because I cared so much about Myra and I had a huge amount of respect for my mother. I couldn’t give two shits about that butt-wipe, so it had to be my fear of being told I couldn’t see my girl anymore and the idea of truly disappointing my mom at the same time.
Of course, my mother would never tell me to stay away from Myra. Right?
She strode toward my desk and took a seat on the office chair I used when I did my homework. “Look, I know the both of you will be turning eighteen next year,” she began.
I actually exhaled with relief, knowing this would be a lecture and not a tirade with unlimited possible outcomes.
She gestured with her hand. “And, I know you guys really like each other. I can see that.” She turned toward Myra, her chin pointing directly at her. “You should feel lucky, my dear. My son has never been this focused on a single girl until you came along.”
My girlfriend had the temerity to smile back at my mom. “I do feel lucky.”
“But, young lady, you must understand, with that degree of intensity, there are bound to be doors opening or boundaries crossed you’ve never been willing to breach prior to being with my son.” She glanced over at me. “And, I’m sure the same goes for him.”
My lips melted into a lopsided grin. There was no denying I wanted Myra. Though, I had wanted many girls, it had always been more of a conceptual notion. With my girlfriend, it was real. It was something I could touch and feel, and taste. Myra made those thoughts tangible. My mother was one hundred percent accurate. Myra and I had been steadily progressing down the road toward a deeper sort of intimacy for quite some time. If her anatomy had been more accommodating our conversation would’ve been entirely different. Possibly a more confrontational one, but what my mom had said would’ve still rang true. Myra and I were hot for one another. It was carnal, basis, like breathing or the beating of one’s heart.
“I just haven’t felt this way about a boy before,” admitted my girlfriend.
I was surprised she’d be this forthcoming with my mom, but it shouldn’t have been too much of a shock. My mom had a way with people, especially us teens. She could relate to us and we could understand what she was saying. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it’s a very rare trait among adults.
Pillar, my wonderful mom, sighed, not unlike I’d seen Myra do scores of times. “We all do, sweetie.”
A thoughtful silence befell us.
My mom is the absolute coolest person ever, I was thinking when:
“You guys need to be careful.” Her voice was soft, measured as if she were thinking about each and every word before she said them. “I cannot stop you from doing what you’re gonna do. I know. I was once your age. But, you have to be aware that with physical contact there are consequences, and these kinds of consequences can change your life – forever.”
Myra and I exchanged a warm glance. Suddenly, we were both glad we’d decided to wait a while. It didn’t mean we were above doing other things, things that might make my mother’s hair stand on end, but for now intercourse was something we were contemplating, not practicing. Even in my wildest dreams I don’t think I would’ve considered being relieved I hadn’t had sex with the girl of my dreams.
“Do you guys promise you’ll be smart?”
“Yes,” I answered at once.
Yea, my mother was bitchin’!
“We will,” said my girlfriend on the heels of my retort.
“Good.” My mother beckoned Myra.
The teenage girl walked from the bed to stand before her.
My mom grabbed her by both hands. “Take care of yourself, ok?” she said, her look suddenly pointed.
My girlfriend nodded emphatically. “I will.”
“You know what I’m talking about, right?”
I had no clue what they were saying to one another, but whatever it was, it had to be a girlie-thing. It went over my head like a fart in the wind.
My mother got up and smoothed out the sweat pants she was wearing. I hadn’t noticed she was wearing a matching set, complete with a tank-top colored the same and thin-soled Nikes. She held out a sheaf of papers to me. “Read this, while I make us all some lunch.”
“What is it?”
“It’s what I came up to show you before I saw… what I didn’t want to see.” She wriggled the pages at me.
I came toward her. “Doesn’t really answer my question, does it?”
She pretended to whack me over the head with them. “Don’t push it, young man.” She smiling broadly, her face was cheerful again. “It’s a history.”
“Of what?” asked Myra. She loved stories, any kind. It didn’t matter if they were fictional or not, she loved them all. I guess that’s why she’s the perfect wife. She’s always willing to read what I’ve wrote, regardless if it’s droll or not.
“Of the house, this house to be exact.”
“Where did you find it?” My girlfriend came to stand next to me, her tiny shoulder rubbing against by bicep.
“Not another dream,” I interjected before my mom could answer.
“No! It wasn’t in a dream. I found it with all the property tax information Jessie left for me when we closed escrow.”
She put the three yellowed pages into my hand.
I stared down at them. They were typed, the ageless Remington font staring back at me from a bygone era.
“Read it to Myra. She’ll like it.” With that she was gone.
According to the pages I was holding, the ground floor of the house had taken two whole years to build and was finished in 1909 by Mr. Marion Gates and his colleagues. He was a bold architect and one of the first building contractors to be licensed and bonded to work in this portion of the fledgling city of Los Angeles. He had built it for his new bride, Florence Witherton-Gates and presented it to her as a wedding gift upon its’ completion, though she’d watched it being built from the moment the very first brick was laid into what would later become the basement. Apparently, she and Mr. Gates had “camped” on the site until the house was completed.
I remember thinking two years was an awful long time to be living out of a tent. But, then Myra had said, people were different back then, and I, finding no fault in her assessment, had to agree. They were. They were hardier than we are now, could endure so much more without batting an eye. The more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of the brave men, women and children who trekked across the vast North American continent, looking for a better life than their ancestors had in Europe, one of their own making. Mr. and Mrs. Gates seemed much like them, taking chances, gambling for something more rewarding out of life.
“It’s kinda romantic,” I said one whim.
Myra had looked at me through glittering eyes. “Yes, it is.” She was staring now.
I smiled, my brow fluttering in question.
“Are you really that adorable?” she asked playfully.
I turned smug. “But, of course!”
She laughed and squirmed onto my lap. “No wonder I want to jump your bones.”
We kissed for a time before I went on reading.
Having enjoyed their rustic existence until the spring of 1909, the Gates had conceived their first child, Franklin, while still living within their spacious tent. He had been walked across the finished threshold of their new home when he was months old.
On the winter of 1912, Elizabeth (a mentally challenged child) was born in the Master Suite. To care for her special needs, the Gates had sectioned off a portion of that chamber, creating the sunroom where Florence could sit with her new child and relax in the rays of the early morning sun.
In the summer of 1914, Mrs. Gates planted what was to become the towering elm in what was her front yard back then.
The following year, Jackson Michael was born. He would prove to be the last of the Gates children.
In December 1918, three years later, Florence planted the area’s vey first magnolia tree to commemorate the end of the Great War. It was nothing short of incredible to think that all of the magnolia’s lining the various streets around Lincoln Drive had come from the tree Mrs. Gates had put in the ground all of those years prior. In this part of the neighborhood, they are virtually everywhere. Some of them are fifty to sixty feet tall!
By then, they had outgrown the house and Mr. Gates, taking advantage of the demolition of a local country club, had used the discarded lumber to build the second story and the attic. This had taken a year to finish, circa the spring of 1920, but at least the boys no longer had to share a room and Elizabeth had more space to herself, which she guarded fiercely.
During that time, Mr. Gates also had the root cellar installed, so the family could store its’ “underground vegetables”, which (as we assumed) also stored more illicit products as well - those of the liquid sort.
In 1927, their daughter, Elizabeth (fifteen), accidentally set fire to the northwestern portion of the second floor and portions of the porch and living room were destroyed in addition to a sizable area of the upper floor. Mr. Gates then rebuilt the damaged portions of the house, adding a mini-master suite for the girl and the full-time nurse/nanny he had hired to make certain the accident was repeated in the future.
By 1934, Mrs. Gates’ mother became ill and her husband had a second house added to what was already a substantial toolshed he had built to hasten the rebuilding of the family home after the fire.
During the Second World War, Mr. Gates had a part of the front porch screened-in, so his wife could do her needle-point without pesky flies and mosquitoes bothering her while she kept a vigilant eye out for the return of her boys from overseas. Both had seen action in the European Theater. Young Jack had even survived the first push onto Normandy Beach, while Franklin scurried about the French countryside in his “death-trap” of a Bradley, one of the many tank commanders in Patton’s vaulted Third Army.
Amazingly, both brothers, did, in fact, make it home after the Nazi’s had surrendered in those lagging months of the planet-wide conflict. All that remained was the decision to invade Japan or bomb into oblivion.
In 1946, Jackson married and moved to Pasadena. (Franklin was a confirmed bachelor by then and hadn’t come back home other than to visit. He lived comfortably upon Mt. Washington in a decent-sized home overlooking the city).
In 1951, Elizabeth died of a fever. By then, her health had diminished to such a degree; her parents had been forced to place her into a long-term medical facility. Combined with her child-like mental state, the aging couple had begun to find it difficult to properly care for her.
From 1952 to 1957, Jackson’s three other children were brought into this world one right after another, so in ’57, with his wife pregnant for the fourth time, he decided it was time to move to a larger home. A month before the baby’s birth, the moved to Altadena and has lived there ever since.
Over the course of the ensuing years, the other sheds were added; a wading pool was constructed, and then torn out when it proved detrimental to the cesspool sewage system. The Pot Belly stove was replaced by a furnace and the whole system was upgraded and retro-fitted the same year President Kennedy was shot and killed in Texas.
In 1967, Mr. Gates died of a cardiac arrest at one of the many construction sites he had going on about town.
In 1972, Mrs. Gates died peacefully, in the sunroom, after having a large cup of Earl Grey, her favorite tea since childhood.
From there the house had been sold a number of times until my parents bought it in the summer of 1986.
It wasn’t a nefarious past like that of the wicked hotel in The Shining. There were no murders or ancient Indian burial grounds. There was no Pet Cemetery or pumpkin patch under which a vengeful demon was entombed. There was nothing of that nature involved with the long history of 1052 Lincoln Drive, nothing.
And yet, since the death of Mrs. Gates, no subsequent owner had stayed longer than a year and a half. It was puzzling at first glance.
But, if you lived there, in that house, after a while, it would begin to make sense.
I was beginning to comprehend who hadn’t left…