by GraybyrdWednesday, 15 June 1994
This neighborhood is in the Lakewood district, south of Tacoma and east of Steilacoom, which sits on Puget Sound's southeast shore just down from the Tacoma Narrows. The waterfront faces McNeil Island, the former federal penitentiary island now turned back to the State which, being chronically short of prison beds, saw no reason to change its land-use status. It remains a prison, aloof and foreboding. It sits brazenly visible across the water like a neighborhood "Devil's Island" franchise, tended by 8-hour shift changes of lunch-bucketed civil servants carried back and forth on a guarded ferry.
My road-weary Chevy pickup squats under a bug-splattered camper, 600 miles out of Idaho and parked here, facing Diamond Blvd., backed into the evergreen-choked driveway of my stepson-in-law's rented house. I sit in my camper at a fold-down table to write this.
The houses front on narrow streets without sidewalks. Shallow front yards with a fringe of inconsistent grass border on rows of Korean War era single-story, hasty-built houses.
Vance and Tanya rent one of these. The eave boards are rotted and paint is peeling everywhere. A patina of 40 years of neglect and a patchy growth of grey-green moss has skulked onto the house. Three young women, two babies, and 50-something Vance live here. Two are Vance's daughters, the third is his new wife; one baby is his granddaughter, the other is his infant son.
Anita, the older daughter, has a day job and plays softball and tries to stay away from home when possible. She has the baby girl, is 23, and divorced. Sarah, her sister, is mid-high school age, is not attending school much anymore, is bone thin, chain smokes, has dark circles under her eyes, and makes long, frequent visits to the bathroom. She is bored to numbness with herself.
Across the street a flat-roofed red house is thumping its windows to pulsing waves of boom-box rap music. An overweight blonde woman and three black men carry household goods to a much nicer house next door. Cars have come and gone all afternoon: two women, couples, mixed couples, a car loaded with books and boxes and lamps retrieved from the just-vacated blue house. The mixed couple from the red house is "swapping" occupancies. Vance said their lease expired this month.
Toxic Orange Tights
Charles is a big, middle-aged black man. He lurch-walks around the yard on a stiff left leg as if he's been knee-capped in a gang shooting or a Vietnam fire-fight. He lives with a fat white blonde woman whose drooping breasts and protruding belly hang in overlapping folds, flopping down where her lap should be. Two girls alternate carrying armsful of stuff from their rooms to the blue house. They look 12 or 13 years old. One is white, one is black. The white girl wears wire-rimmed glasses and a grade school expression. The black girl wears toxic orange tights textured with underlying cellulite dimples and ripples of soft thigh flesh, a bulging pudenda, and jiggling buttocks. She wears a coy smile that forbodes a succubus about to spring upon the brothers.
Black boys alternate between tossing a basketball at a plastic rim tacked to the roof's edge, carrying boxes when called, and otherwise cracking wise at other kids cruising by on their bikes.
Vance has no use for these people from the red house. The loud music grates on him. The people coming and going, "playmates," he cracks, irritate his sense of propriety. He mutters a resentful racial slur.
He is thumbing through a new issue of "Hand Gunner" magazine, lingering over photo layouts of heavy-caliber semi-auto weapons. I wonder at this preoccupation with heavy hand-toys, and for a chill instant I link his intense irritation with the "in-your-face" situation across the street. It's best not to dwell on these thoughts.
Vance comments that the red-house people may have a police scanner. He called the cops last week to complain of rowdy party noise. Five minutes before the patrol car arrived, the house went dead and the front door slammed shut. Five minutes after the police left, the door swung open, the music came back up, and the people came out to dance on the lawn.
Since I've been here, the people doing the house-swap haven't glanced in this direction. We're like "invisible" over here.
Vance is a Vietnam vet. He came back wounded, mind and body. He's never talked about Vietnam. I've never asked him. His face recites chapter and verse with its dark, sunken eyes, and its tired flesh cut through with wrinkles like rice-paddy ditches.
He talks of his "return" with soft words. He is proud of his "rehab" from drugs and drinking. He volunteers with a local veteran's group that works to keep other vets from falling back into the insentient hell they've barely escaped. He grieves for those who haven't.
Tanya, Vance's wife, is 32. She simultaneously wears contact lenses and thick-lensed eyeglasses. It seems inconceivable that she isn't legally blind. She struggled through high school and married her high school sweetheart who dropped out to smoke pot. He became a motorpool sergeant and blood-tested positive for marijuana. Discharged, he retreated to Tacoma to work at a string of service station jobs. Tanya, weary of waiting for John to grow up, sued for divorce. She entry-levelled into a subsistence job clerking at a convenience store. Then she landed in bed with 50-something Vance, a persistently charming customer. Vance rewarded Tanya with marriage; Tanya rewarded Vance with an infant son.
Thursday, 16 June 1994
Vance, Tanya and Sarah (Vance's daughter) are heavy smokers. I pity the baby, Levi. He weighed 7 pounds at birth. Tanya smoked full term. My mother smoked full term. Everyone in my family smoked. I smoked three packs a day before I quit in '82. Then I quit, "cold turkey." My skin crawled. My eyeballs and fingernails itched. Deep breathing helped. So did banging my forehead against hard things. Tanya cannot quit smoking. I understand.
She has gained too much weight. She was always large-breasted. Now her breasts are huge, swollen, pendulous. The fullness of milk and her new weight have combined for a spectacular effect. She was nursing in the front room and talking on the phone. Her breast is bigger than the baby.
Friday, 17 June 1994
It's raining, steady, moderate, a good coast rain. It's making that delightful drumming sound on the camper roof as I write.
The pack across the street may be dealing drugs. The traffic is heavy. Buyers and police cruisers alternate coming through. Last night three cruisers pulled up and "field interviewed" the black men on the front lawn. The cops are making a show of force. Hours will go by with no sign of a cruiser, then, after dark, they'll cruise through five minutes apart, idling along, spotlighting the house.
Between police visits, buyers and friends and playmates stream through. Kim, the middle-aged black lady next door with an elderly white mother and a four-year old black son with a deformed hip and a grotesque, crow-hopping gait, tells me that the "money man" has driven through three times alrealdy this month to make exchanges with Charles.
This is infuriating. This is the first time I've seen real-life neighborhood drug dealing. There's little the neighbors and cops can do, under the law. I was watching when a 30-something white male in a yuppie-grade car pulled up. Charles joined him for a ride around the block. Charles came back stuffing money in his pocket. Whitey drove away. Party in the high-rise tonight.
I listen to the rain drumming on the camper roof. It should be a great night for sleeping.
Monday, 20 June 1994
The night before, Tanya and Vance and the girls were squabbling: Anita resented a remark about her not helping with housework; she came storming out of the family room-cum-bedroom and screamed retorts. Tanya yelled back. Vance glowered. He had just put another movie in the VCR. I slipped out of the room. Both girls stormed out of the house, slammed into Anita's car, and drove away. They returned late Sunday afternoon. I didn't see them again.
The stench of cigarette smoke, the glowering, sulking Sarah, a succession of mindless movies in the VCR and the squabbling and screeching and spiteful accusations: it became intolerable. I retreated to my camper and stayed holed up. At least there I could eat. Tanya, Vance and the girls have a strange meal arrangement. The girls don't cook, Vance doesn't eat much. Tanya will get around to cooking, eventually, and the girls will come circling in like gaunt, snarling hyenas around a lion's kill.
Sunday, we found a cluster of stores under one huge collective roof. It's a famous old Tacoma shopping bazaar. A fully-grown male gorilla had been kept there for over 35 years in a spacious, walled-in cage. Animal protectionists protested that the gorilla must be moved to more humane surroundings. The owners and most of the local shoppers responded that the gorilla was just fine where he was. They told the activists to drop dead. The activists responded with press releases and legal challenges.
The gorilla wasn't talking. He painted with brushes and acrylics. It was an experiment. Now the pieces have become "collectibles." Those on display are pleasing enough. They seem as valid as "abstract art" as most anything else making that claim. The gorilla has a nice touch: vivid color, balanced arrangement, and varied content. He does tend to rumple the paper a lot.
A video store displayed walls of grossly raunchy "XXX" stuff on open shelves. One video label promised two hours of "kinky stuff" under a color photo of a naked 600-lb. woman, a pink mountain terraced with folds of flesh, reclined against her pillows. A slinky young woman lay between the fatlady's tree-trunk legs to extend her hand into the fatlady's crotch. Two hours?!
Back at the neighborhood on Diamond Blvd. where the streets are narrow and curbside parking is forbidden because cars cannot pass, the black, rain-sodden night fills with the sound of racing engines and shrieking sirens. Tacoma City cops like hounds on a fox are chasing a drug dealer through the neighborhoods.
I pull at the camper curtains in my street-facing overhead sleeper and squint out through the murk. I see a heavy, dark sedan go fleeting through the streetlight circle, heeled hard over, sliding around the corner. Then the blare of an electronic siren screams down the street. The ear-blasting shriek and waves of strobe-blasted blue-and-red light pulses wash through my windows, rebound off the housefronts, and tear away. Shaken fully awake, I listen. I trace the pursuit by sound into the next blocks and beyond, fading, ebbing into the distance.
Squinting down at my watch, I can just see the greenish glow of the hands, 3:30 a.m. The house behind the camper stays dark. I figure that Vance is awake and muttering in his bed, feeling the heavy, warm body of his wife alongside. In three hours he'll dress for work. Not long after that we'll be on the road, back to Idaho.
I wonder how long before Charles and his friends follow us to Boise.
I fall asleep.
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