It was an absurd stance to assume, especially given I knew of at least three alternate ways to access the house, and none of them required the use of a key. As a child, I was constantly reprimanded for slipping the clasp on our front window, then reaching through to unfasten the front door. I never had a house key. I never questioned why.
Perhaps my parents anticipated that I’d lose all of my marbles, then run screaming from their home around the age of 18. Perhaps they thought that spare key might represent some type of gateway, that I might sell that spare key down the river, then go nodding off beneath some pine. Perhaps they never thought about that goddamn key at all.
But the more likely explanation – an explanation I was never afforded at the time – had something to do with an ongoing lack of trust. Acute suspicion struck at the very heart of all our struggles. And yet, it was that same acute suspicion that served to harden my resolve, fueling a desire to prove I was capable of making it alone.
To that end I had a close friend drive me over to my parents’ house one mid-May morning – a morning when I knew my mother, my father and younger sister would be out. I requested that this friend park his car around the corner, allowing me to make my final approach across back fences. I used a pocket knife to slip the lock on our back door, then shuffled upstairs to my bedroom, where I found two stacks of laundry folded neatly on my bureau.
I remember streaks of daylight breaking through the pastel curtains. I remember awkward silence mixed with throbbing pangs of guilt. I remember bagging clothes, then running out the basement door. I remember how that door slammed shut, then locked itself behind me.
I remember my father intercepting me a few days later on a cross-town walk from Ridley Park to Springfield. He was driving south along 420 when I noticed him pass by. He broke full-bore into a U-turn, swerving round to cut me off.
“Get in,” he said. He pushed the passenger-side door wide open.
“No,” I said back.
“Get in,” he said, looking everywhere but at me. “I just want to talk, that’s all.”
“Well, then talk,” I said. “But I’m not getting in that car.”
My father considered this for a moment. “What if I pull into that vacant lot?” he suggested, gesturing with his chin. “That way I can turn off the car, and you can get out whenever you want.”
“OK,” I said. “Pull around. I’ll meet you there.”
And so, for the ensuing 3-4 minutes, my father and I sat in a vacant parking lot along a shady patch of Route 420, both of us staring forward at reflections on the dash. He offered me no quarter, and I offered him none back. We just sat. And stared. And then we sat and stared some more.
Eventually, my father insisted that I come back to the house. I, in turn, insisted there was nothing left to say. I looked out the window, asked my father to let my mother know I was getting by OK. Then I opened the side door, and – for the first time in my life – I turned my back upon my father.
For the first time in his life, he simply let me be.
Come Memorial Day weekend, I made the full-time move to Wildwood. My parents, meanwhile, had taken to contacting as many of my friends’ parents as possible, desperate for any update on my whereabouts. The general plea was for my safety, my father maintaining he had reason to believe I’d gotten mixed up in drugs. When none of my friends stepped forward to volunteer information, my parents cast a wider net, placing calls to several people I hadn’t spoken to in years. They called my friend Michelle during a graduation party for her brother. They called some dude I’d gotten drunk with during freshman year of high school. They even called some girl I’d shared a tryst with during Senior Week.
Fearful that my choices were negatively impacting others, I called my parents from a pay phone and arranged for them to visit. The afternoon when they arrived there was a cokehead by the name of Woody dangling shirtless from our landing. Woody was one of several dozen people milling about along the porch. Most of these people were drunk, which is why I hustled down the steps and met my parents on the sidewalk.
We ate lunch around the corner, where the conversation slanted awkward. My parents made it clear they disagreed with what I was doing, and I made it clear that their opinion held no sway. Once lunch was over, the three of us wandered back to my apartment, where we were greeted by a drunk tenant named Jay. Jay kept repeating the phrase, “So you two are Bob Hill’s parents,” over and over and over again, so many times, in fact, I eventually requested he please stop.
Before my mother left that afternoon, she handed me a piece of paper with a phone number written on it. The number belonged to my cousin Dave, who was staying at a nearby house in Sea Isle. Dave was four years older than me, and he occupied the big-brother function in my life that my real-life big brother had entirely vacated. Dave was intelligent, non-judgmental. Back in high school, he introduced me to Tolkien and Vonnegut; Morrison and Waters. He took me to see my first concert, and then, a year later, he took me to see my second. He taught me how to play pinball and poker, checkers and chess. He was the only one of my relatives who did not approach me like a chore.
I hadn’t spoken to my cousin since April, and, as such, I took a few seconds prior to calling, striving to approximate the right tone. I stood. And I stared. And I made ridiculous faces at my reflection in the keypad. I gathered a handful of quarters, fed the slot, then dialed the number.
One ring. Two ring. Three ring. Four.
“Hello,” an unfamiliar voice said.
“No, no. This is Kevin. Who’s this?”
“Kevin, it’s Bud.” a family nickname.
“Buuuuuuuuuuuuuud,” Kevin said. “What’s up, man?”
“Not much. I’m actually calling from a pay phone over in Wildwood right now, so I was wondering if my cousin Dave might be around.”
“Yeah, man. He’s right here. Hold on.”
“Hello,” my cousin Dave said.
“Hey, man. What’s up? It’s Bud.”
“What’s up?” my cousin Dave said. “Nothing’s up. What’s up with you?”
“Me? Well, nothing, actually.”
“Uh-huh,” Dave said. “So what are you calling me here for?”
“Well, my mom gave me this number,” I said, “and she told me that you wanted me to call.”
“I said that?” Dave said.
“Well, yeah,” I told Dave. “I mean, that’s what she told me.”
“I don’t think so,” Dave said.
“Oh. Well, maybe she just figured since the two of us were both down the shore for the sum … ”
“No,” my cousin Dave said.
“No what?” I said. I was very obviously confused. “Is there something wrong here?”
“Something wrong with me?” my cousin Dave said.
“I don’t know, something.”
“There might be something wrong with you,” my cousin Dave said, “but there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Something wrong with me like what?” I said.
“Something like 10 pounds worth of potatoes inside a five-pound sack,” my cousin Dave said.
“Huh?” I said back.
“You heard me. Nothing more than 10 pounds worth of potatoes inside a five-pound sack.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking abou … ”
What followed was the sound of change dropping, as if the phone had swallowed my deposit. I gathered a handful of quarters, redialed the same number.
“Hello,” my cousin Dave said.
“Hey, man. I think we must’ve gotten disconnected.”
“We didn’t get disconnected,” my cousin Dave said. “I hung up on you.”
And then again, as if to demonstrate his point, my cousin disconnected the call, leaving me alone at the corner of Glenwood and Pacific, staring at my reflection in the keypad.
“Ten pounds worth of potatoes inside a five-pound sack,” I murmured.
Nothing more than 10 pounds worth of potatoes inside a five-pound sack.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)