Down There on a Visit
by Richard Risemberg

This is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress. The people and neighborhoods described are amalgams of my various in-laws from two marriages, and of the places they have lived.

She had grown up in a California suburb, a place where there was nothing to do and nowhere to do it in. Long rows of stucco houses set behind precise square lawns; curved driveways leading to the garage in front. The garage doors gaping in the heat dwarfed the real front doors, which looked like servants' entrances by comparison. There was nothing nearby except more suburbs, and the freeway, moaning with endless traffic, that channeled the inhabitants away to work in the morning, and back to their couches and TVs in the night. In the city, you give up nature but there's culture; in the country you may not have much company but there are trees, fields, hills. Kate's birthright was a street with no sidewalks and a Burger King by a freeway offramp, where fumes from the gas station flavored your double-cheese-and-fries as you ate in a parked car. There were no trees, and the heat beat down all day from an empty sky. Everyone stayed indoors as much as they could, sprawled on huge sofas underneath the air-conditioning vents, even the silence of the day outside obscured by the gentle whirring of mechanisms. Televisions ran all hours with the sound turned low; even when someone talked to you their eyes shifted back and forth from your face to the nervous blue rectangle of the picture tube. There was no place else to look: the houses were dimly lighted, the drapes were always drawn against the heat and the light. The back wall of the family room was invariably a sliding glass door, always covered with corrugations of thick fabric. Sometimes strange, silent lightnings danced across the shades, projected from behind: reflections from the unused swimming pool in the back yard, the water rippled by an unremarked breeze.

We used to go down there every couple of months. Kate was always good about visiting her folks. I'd take my walks every day, though there was no place to walk to. Sometimes I'd wander to the outermost street of the development, and stand looking over the little wall. Beyond it was a vast, scraped level of hard dirt, with half-dead weeds growing out of the bulldozer tracks. In the distance, almost on the horizon, was a line of low brown hills, with no more form than a furrow. Nearby, the faded yellow tape on a surveyor's stake shook in the breeze. Burger wrappers and styrofoam cups, pale gray with dust and disintegrating under the glare of the sky. No voices. Once in a while the sound of a car, far away.

Back at the house, her mother would be on the phone, sitting on a stool at the freestanding kitchen counter. I never saw her without a cup of coffee in her hand. She bragged that she drank twenty cups a day. I could believe it. She was plump, and wore her hair short in one of those helmet-like permanents. Her voice ran endlessly, like the low sound of the televisions. I don't know how many people she talked to on the phone each day, but it was plenty. Most of them lived within a few blocks.

Kate's father rarely spoke. I remember his face, truly handsome in middle age, with a head of thick wavy hair. And the dazed, empty expression he wore after work, after dinner, after his first beer. Hours in front of the tube, watching anything. He was an intelligent man, an engineer. Sitting, sitting, drinking his beer in small sips. He would talk to me about computers sometimes, but that was back before they were commonplace and I knew nothing about them. He worked for a military contractor, so he couldn't talk freely about what he did all day, and he didn't do much of anything else. Somehow I liked him. I have no idea what he thought of me. Probably that at least I wasn't as bad as the previous boyfriends. Still, they made us sleep in separate rooms when we were there.

Kate had a brother and a sister who spent most of their time in their own rooms or at friends' houses. You'd hear a motor and the blare of a horn, and one of them would appear or disappear. I've forgotten their names.

That was what passed for "home" with Kate. Looking back on it now, I'm not surprised she became a phony rebel: she'd had nothing real to rebel against.

copyright 1997 Richard Risemberg