We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves. No one told us who we were or what we were or where all our parents went. They would arrive like ghosts, visiting us for a morning, an afternoon. They would sit with us or walk around the grounds, to laugh or cry or toss us in the air while we screamed. Then they’d disappear again, for weeks, for months, for years, leaving us alone with our memories and dreams, our questions and confusion, the wide-open places where we were free to run like wild horses in the night.
It happened all at once, my brother and I sitting naked in the bath, playing with our toy boats, listening to the music and the sound of muffled voices from the next room. We are swaddled in red-and-green wool blankets and readied for sleep: story time, pajamas, the rubbing of tired eyes. Good night, canyon. Good night, mountain. Good night, building. Good night, stars. Crayons are put away; cubbies cleaned; teeth brushed. I drift to sleep but then I’m rattled awake, surprised to see my mother’s face with her shaved head, her hazel-green eyes, her round Dutch cheeks, and crooked, coffee-stained yellow teeth: “Hi, Goo. Wake up. We have to leave. It’s not safe here.”
I’ve been told this woman’s name is “Mom.” That’s what I’m told to call her. I know the word is supposed to have some kind of special meaning. She comes to visit me. She’s sadder than the others. She wears overalls and squeezes me, talks about how she misses me, her eyes forever darting around the room like a nervous bird. My eyes are filled with sleep, my head heavy. “But I’m tired.”
Bonnie and Clubby are the other women. They’re with me every day. They’re funny. They talk in strange voices and always have a game to play or a slice of apple or crackers and juice. They call me “Son.” Pronounced “Suuuuuun” in a low baritone on account of my deep voice, round belly, and overbite that makes my top lip stick out in a funny way. They always say they could just “eat my face.” They’re big and soft, like warm pillows I can fall into. Clubby talks in a strange way that doesn’t use any R’s. “Well, waddya think, kid? You gonna get in yo jammies o’ wut?” She says it’s because she’s from a place called New Yoke. Which is far away from California.
The woman I’m told to call Mom cries when she comes to visit. She reads me a book, or we walk around the compound, the big golden field, or I sit in her lap as she sings songs with words I don’t understand—“Fair-a, jhock-a, fair-a, jhock-a, door may voo, door may voo.” She combs my hair, tells me she misses me. “Don’t be sad, Mom,” I tell her. I tell her that most of all. “Don’t be so sad all the time.” She stares at me when I eat like she’s trying to memorize something, like she’s about to say something but decides not to.
“I love you, Goo. My little boy.” Tears in her eyes fall on the bib of her clean blue overalls. Everyone wears overalls here. I have three pairs. Then she disappears again, and I find Clubby and Bonnie and we laugh and build things out of Popsicle sticks or play hide-and-seek with the other kids until bath time, then song time, singing:
“There’s a land that I see where the children are free …”
Then bedtime when there are stories of dragons and castles and baby birds and moons that talk to children and children who talk to cats and blue butterflies that talk to lions. Then they say good night to me, to Cassidy, to Guy, to Dmitri—my best buddy—then Noah.
When I wake up, when all the other kids are still sleeping, Mom shakes me and says, “We have to go. We have to go now. You have to be quiet, honey.”
I tell her I need some water. She has a look I’ve never seen as I feel my chest sink into itself like there’s something sharp and hot at the bottom of my throat. “What about Clubby and Bonnie?”
“Shhh … We can write to them. I promise.” She picks me up. The other kids are fast asleep. There’s a soft yellow light coming from the doorway of the bathroom with the low toilet next to the craft tables. Debbie, who watches over us at night, stands next to the woman I am told to call Mom. She looks scared. My brother, Tony, is in the doorway, already dressed, his arms crossed. His head is shaved just like mine.
“Where are we going, Mom?” My throat is dry, and I feel a blankness spreading from my stomach up over my chest, going out over my arms and legs to my fingers and toes.
“To the car, to go see Grandma and Grandpa.”
A car? I don’t understand. I’ve seen cars driving in and out of the long driveway at the front of the building, but I’ve never been in one. They look so big and fast. I wonder if it will feel like flying. When Dad comes to visit, he rides a loud two-wheel car called a motocycle. He leans back on the seat with his hands on the handlebars, which makes it look exactly like he’s floating on air.
The world is as big as the playground, the field, the forest on the far side of the road, and this room where I sleep with Dmitri and Cassidy after song time, as big as Clubby and Bonnie with their funny voices and tomato soup and toast.
The woman I’m told to call Mom is looking for my shoes. Debbie goes to the cubby closet and opens the door to the cubby where I keep my overalls, underwear, socks, and the baseball Dad gave me signed by Steve Garvey, who is a professional baseball player. Dad likes baseball, I think. I have a bag where I keep my toothbrush and a yellow plastic comb that’s too big for my shaved head. I have marbles and chalk and the pictures I drew with Bonnie on construction paper. I don’t have any toys. None that are mine anyway. All the kids have to share our toys, and no one can even keep a bike if someone brings you one.
Debbie puts my things in a paper bag and hands them to Mom. We start for the door. “Wait, Mom. No one will know where I am when they wake up.”
“It’s OK, sweetie.”
“Shut up, dummy!” Tony says.
“Shhhhhh!!” Mom pulls him to her hip.
“But why do we have to leeeeeave?”
She lets out a deep breath, puts me on the ground, gathers us like a mother hen.
She squints, holding her eyes closed tight, her hands over her forehead, then opens them and looks at me, grabbing my hands in hers. She reaches for Tony, but he turns away. “Listen, I know you don’t understand, but we have to leave right now. And we can’t let anyone find out, OK? So I need you guys to be quiet. We’re going on an adventure.”
Her eyes move wildly from me to my brother and back to me. “You can sleep in the car. And when you wake up, you’ll be at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and we’ll all have Dutch rolls and cheese.”
There’s no reasoning with her. I try to imagine what the house looks like. I’ve never left the School, which is what everyone calls this place. I wonder if it’s got a big door. Mom once told me they had lots of music boxes, that Grandma was crazy for small boxes that play music when you open them.
I look at Tony’s face for clues, but he’s got his chin pressed against the door frame, holding the paper bag with his stuff in it. My head feels woozy as my eyes fall on the buttons of Debbie’s blue overalls. She’s nice, but she’s new. I miss Clubby because she used to be with us at night and would hold me when I had a bad dream and call me Suuuuuun. She would tell me we were safe here, all of us here in Synanon, living together, a great big family, a tribe of humans who love each other and love the world and love the little babies most of all.
Debbie whispers something to Mom. Tony is mad. I’m told he’s my brother. I see him on the playground, but he never plays with the other kids. He sits by himself. I sit by him sometimes, but I don’t think he likes me because he pushes me and tells me to leave him alone. He’s three years older and twice my size. People say we look like each other, but I don’t see it.
Mom picks us up. She seems so much like a giant bird. Like she swooped down from the sky and got us. I want to tell her not to worry, that I can fly, too. I’m strong enough, and sometimes, when I’m dreaming, my ears get big—big enough to be like wings—and I can fly anywhere I want. I just flap them and soar way up into the sky. I tell myself, “Remember, you have to remember this when you wake up. You can fly.” And I’m remembering now because I just woke up. I want to tell her, but there’s no time. She beats her wings, and we take flight over the School, the playground, the yard, the field, the buildings, the entire Synanon compound where we played games and ate and sang and slept. Where we heard the adults screaming through the speakers of the Wire, the in-house radio, with its crackle and hiss letting us hear the sounds of people laughing, people crying, people yelling, people dancing, a jazz band playing music. The Punk Squad, the mean teenagers with their cursing and cuffed jeans getting punched in the face if they ever talk back. Every week one of them runs away, and everybody gets so mad. The sound of Chuck, the Old Man, the leader, talking about things we don’t understand. He says he loves us, but he’s always so angry. And the bird, we are told to call her “Mom,” flapping furiously, eyes locked on some faraway point as she clutches her chicks and we fly up over Tomales Bay with its streams draining into the Pacific Ocean, the giant redwoods on the hillside, the big waves crashing against the rocks on the coast, slowly breaking them into tiny pieces, fracturing them, pulling them apart—until they’re soft to the touch, portable and broken, easy to walk on, to place into a small plastic bag for a tourist visiting with sunburned ankles from some ancient city to the east.
THE BIG ROAD
There’s a brown car waiting in the parking lot at the front of the compound. The driveway looks different at night. I’ve seen stars before, when Bonnie and Clubby would take us outside to lie on our backs and look up at the sky. Bonnie and I have chosen a star for me. It’s easy to find, hanging over the pine trees at the edge of the field. But I don’t see it. I wonder where it’s gone. I want to point at it and name it and say hello. All I can hear is the shuffling of our feet, a soft cooing from the woods, and the rumble of the engine in the parking lot. The air smells damp, like concrete and pine needles, a big cloud of steam bursting from behind the long brown sedan. There’s a man sitting in the front seat with a short blond mustache that goes halfway across his upper lip.
I can’t believe my luck that I get to ride in a car. “Is that your car, Mom? Who’s that man?”
“That’s your grandfather.” She opens the rear door and helps us in.
“Hi-dee do,” says Grandpa Frank. I see his eyes in the little mirror. He looks like an older, short, mannish version of Mom. Same round cheeks, which I’m later told are something called “Dutch.” Mom has told me stories about him, that he was on the Olympic team
for Dutch but that he couldn’t go because they canceled the Olympics because of the war. Mom says Grandpa has the strongest hands in the world because he was a gymnast, that he was
in two different armies for two different countries, America and Dutch. She told me he was far away fighting the Germans when she was born and that Grandma Frieda sent him a picture of her.
She showed it to me once: It was a round-cheeked baby girl sitting on a chair in a white apron, a bonnet on her head. “Daddy carried this on his ship. Carried it in his pocket.” He would look at the picture, crouched in a hole in the ground when the Germans would drop bombs on him and his friends in a place called the Bulge where there was a big battle and awful things happened but Grandpa won’t talk about it because it was so terrible. All he’d ever say is that he would look at the picture and whisper, “Gerredina, Daddy loves you.”
“It’s strange to hear a man speak. Men don’t come to the School very often, and when they do, we stare at them like wild beasts from our storybooks.”
“Hi, Dad.” Mom climbs into the front seat. She looks around, scanning the parking lot, the woods, the driveway that leads to the Big Road.
“Where are we going?” Tony says.
Grandpa Frank is frozen in his seat, staring straight ahead, hands on the steering wheel. Mom turns around.
“We’re leaving, honey.”
“Will we be back by lunch?”
“No. I’m sorry. We won’t.”
“But Noah has my baseball card!” Tony yells, stomping his foot.
“I’ll get you some new cards,” Grandpa says.
It’s strange to hear a man speak. We’re so used to the women. His voice is deep and certain. The men don’t come to the School very often, and when they do, we stare at them like wild beasts from our storybooks. They have beards or mustaches, big muscles, and leather boots. Some are bald with hair on their arms, necks, and chests. They’re so tall, and when they play with us, they throw us in the air to show us how much stronger they are. It’s fun to be small next to something so big.
“OK,” Tony mumbles. I can tell he’s just as stunned as me. We aren’t used to the men.
Mom closes her eyes and puts her hands over her ears. She rubs her temples. She looks exactly like Noah when he got stuck in the big tree behind the School.
“Are we going to live with Grandma and Grandpa?”
“For a little while, yes. But then we’ll probably live somewhere else.” “But what about Bonnie and Clubby?” I ask. “And Dmitri? Will I see them? Are they leaving, too? Are they coming with us?”
“I don’t know if they’re leaving. I hope so. We can write to them.”
“What does that mean?” I can write letters. I know my alphabet as well as Dmitri, and we read books together, at bedtime, and sometimes during the day. But I don’t understand why writing matters, what the letters on a piece of paper have to do with sitting on Bonnie’s lap naming stars or playing with Clubby and being called Suuuuuun.
“You’re just gonna have to trust me, honey. We have to go now.”
The ride down the driveway is bumpy. I’m amazed as I’m pushed back into the seat. I look back at the School. The rear window looks like a giant movie. I think about my friends asleep in their cots, the time I woke up in the middle of the night to find Dmitri talking with his eyes closed. I got out of my cot and put my ear right up next to his mouth to hear what he was saying, but it was just pieces of words. “He’s dreaming,” Clubby whispered. I looked over my shoulder and saw her smiling face, the deep-set eyes with heavy black circles, the short clipped hair, the massive shoulders protruding up in swells from beneath the straps of her overalls. “Sometimes when people are dreaming, they talk and sometimes they don’t.”
“Will he hear me if I talk to him?”
“Nah, he can’t hear you. He’s not really there. He’s somewhere in his head. That’s what a dream is. When you imagine you’re somewhere you’ve never been while you’re sleeping.”
The stars are moving so quickly behind the Synanon compound as we turn onto the highway. The Big Road! Wow! I try to flap my ears so I can fly back. I want to hug Bonnie and sit next to Dmitri’s cot to see if he’s dreaming right now. Maybe we both are. Maybe this is his dream. How can you tell?
My brother sits on the other side of the back seat. He keeps pushing down on his knuckles with his cheek until they pop. Our brown paper bags are stacked between us.
I feel a pull toward the playground and the yard, a tug like a string stretched to a breaking point. I want to crawl into Bonnie’s lap, to sleep. But the highway—there are other cars on it going so fast they look like blurs, like the wings of a hummingbird. The green signs go by overhead with names of places on them: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento. It feels exactly like flying in my dreams, like my arms stretched behind me, legs tucked, and I’m leaping, higher and higher until I’m up above all of it, looking down. And there, from that perch above the clouds, I see a stone wall that rises to a gray tower. I can just walk across the cloud and let myself in. When I close my eyes, I see all the people from Synanon: crying and dancing and laughing and screaming and riding swings and eating macaroni and cheese. Bonnie, Clubby, Dmitri, Cassidy, Guy, Noah. And Dad. I close my eyes hard to see Dad, but I can’t. He’s blurry like the cars on the highway. So I open them and see Mom hunched over in the front seat, her round Dutch cheeks covered in tears and my brother with his mouth tight and his fists clenched, staring out the window at the strange cars and highway signs.
Mom was right about the music boxes. Grandma and Grandpa’s house is filled with them. There is one in the bedroom that has a picture of a blue windmill and one in the living room made of old wood. They play pretty songs when you open them. There’s another in the kitchen where we eat Dutch cheese and rolls. In the living room there’s something called a grandfather clock. There are some small clocks sitting on shelves, some are made of crystal, some of metal, one is made from a green stone and has a white face with no numbers. That one’s my favorite.
In Synanon we had tables and chairs and poster board and a big swing set and dishes made of plastic. We ate and made crafts at short wooden tables. This house is filled with paintings and furniture that’s been carved to look like waves or flowers or faces or buildings. There’s an old fisherman in a ratty hat staring down at the dining-room table, a cat made of glass that prowls on the shelf in the living room. There’s a painting on tiles of little rivers that go right through a city in Dutch. The couch is creamy white with little green flowers and stuffed thicker than any pillows I’ve ever seen. I wonder if a king lives here since Grandpa’s golden chair looks like a throne.
I like Grandpa Frank because he talks to us, and whenever we leave to go somewhere, he gives us a “smack on the fanny,” which means a hard hit on the butt. He’s funny about it, lining us up one by one. It’s true that his hands are very strong. He lets me grab his fingers and squeeze as hard as I can while he laughs.
He’s always making little jokes with us. We’ll say, “What are we doing today, Grandpa?”
And he’ll say, “Today, we are going to the dump.”
We’ll laugh and say, “No we’re not! We’re gonna play!” Because we know he’s going to take us to collect golf balls in his golf cart or to see his boat, the little white one he keeps at the dock.
Grandma will lean in and say, “Stop teasing the boys, Frank.”
“Jokes! It’s important to laugh, you know.”
Grandma is skinny with blue-white hair and small teeth so that you can barely see them when she smiles, if she smiles. Her face is bunched up, like she’s hiding something, something that escapes little by little through the day as she sits in her favorite chair in a thin blue robe across from Grandpa, drinking from a tall cup filled with ice and “Dutch.” That’s what she calls it: “Frank, dear, will you refill my Dutch?” Grandpa gets up from his throne and walks over to a small counter where he pours an orangish-brown liquid from a crystal bottle into the tall glass. It smells like sweet gasoline. She drinks the Dutch all day long every day, and as she gets sleepier, her meanness leaves her like air from a balloon so that by the time dinnertime comes she wants us to come sit by her. She smiles with her little teeth and says, “Hi, shweety, are you happy here? Would you like a piece of candy?”
Mom says Grandma’s family lived in America before she moved to Dutch. Her dad was a coal miner, and their family did something called quaking, which made them Quakers, so Grandma couldn’t do fun stuff like dance or play cards. One day she moved to New York to become a nurse, which is where she met Grandpa who took her back to Dutch.
The mornings are worse for her. She says, “I have such a headache. Frank, dear, will you bring me my pills?” She shuffles her feet when she walks like she’s afraid to take steps too big while Grandpa Frank gets her pills or her slippers or her breakfast or another sweating glass of Dutch delivered at 11:15 a.m. sharp.
Mom is gone in the afternoons when Tony and I play outside on the grass. Grandpa sits on his chair and calls out, “A dit dit dit … Watch out for the bees.” I don’t know if this is Dutch, or if it’s just how grandpas talk because I’ve never known another grandpa. They were in our storybooks with their white hair and bent backs. They have something to do with the moms and the dads. They seem permanent, like the trees. Grandpa tells us we have to be nice to Mom. She’s been through so much. Grandma says at least she “finally got away from that awful place and that drug addict ex-husband of hers.”
I know she’s talking about Dad, but in Synanon everyone was a drug addict so I don’t understand why she’s so mad about it. Anyway we never used the words “drug addict.” We would just say someone was a “Dope Fiend.” People said this with pride, and I’m pretty sure that’s what we are. And if someone were to ask us whether we are white or black or Dutch or Italian, I’m not really sure, but I know we’re all Dope Fiends because that’s all anyone ever talks about.
Tony draws monsters. I draw superheroes. Tony draws big battle scenes with tanks and soldiers and explosions, beasts with horns and big teeth that drip blood. They hold axes and clubs and guns in their claws. My superheroes fly through the air trying to kill the monsters. It’s never clear who wins. Grandpa says we should draw something nice for Mom so I draw a picture of her with long hair because even though it’s shaved all the way to the scalp and everybody stares at her when we go to Goodwill, she says it used to be long and pretty, and that’s the way she likes to see herself in pictures. Plus she says men like long hair and she wants to be pretty for a man and no man wants a single mom with a bald head.
Mom gets an album and shows me photos from when she was growing up in Holland. She shows me the house where they lived. She says she grew up speaking Dutch, which sounds like if you speak with peanut butter and crackers in your mouth. She didn’t come to the United States until she was 14, and there was no one to speak Dutch with anymore so she spoke English or she didn’t speak at all.
She tells me there were bomb craters all around the neighborhood that she used to play in. They were like giant tears in the Earth, like a piece of the Earth had been scooped out. There was a war and Grandpa fought in it and that’s when she was born and afterward she lived in a big house but there was still rubble everywhere and those giant holes in the ground right in the middle of where everybody lived.
I ask her if she ever saw the bombs go off. She says it was all over by then, but craters from a war are a good place for a kid to go and hide.
From Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett, Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.