The House in the Alley

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The House in the Alley

He sat on an apple box inside an old garage. Bare dirt served as the garage floor and litter; cans, newspapers, discarded shoes, cardboard boxes, covered most of the dirt. A hinge on one side of the garage door had broken loose causing it to hang lower at the bottom than on the other side, creating a triangular opening where the halves of the door separated. The opening allowed him to watch the house across the alley. He enjoyed the silence, taking in and savoring the musty odor of the old garage.

When the light was just right he would occasionally do his homework here in the garage. But more often he spent his time trying to figure things out, trying to understand why everything was so easy when he was away from the house and why, when inside of its four walls, each breath he took had to be accompanied by fear.

His life away from the garage and home was school, baseball fields and gymnasiums. His teachers knew his circumstances and praised him for the better than average work he did. His coaches saw him as an athlete with great potential but not as focused as he could be.

He was thirteen. His face was covered with freckles and he had a shock of copper colored hair. Almost everyone thought he was shy. And maybe the hint of shyness made him quieter than most, but what he really wanted, though he couldn’t have put it into words, was invisibility. He was withdrawn, reluctant to be present except in physical form. His reluctance had the opposite effect of what he wanted. Instead of pushing others away, his reticence made them reach out to him, especially adults.

And they did reach out to him. A friend invited him to his home and when evening approached the friend’s mother asked the boy to stay for dinner. He accepted the invitation with a smile and a barely audible, ‘Sure.’ Conversation was light at the table and the boy laughed at a few things that were said. When asked questions his answers were brief, usually just yes or no. He was asked back several times and became more comfortable with each visit.

A coach offered him a ride home after practice one evening. On the way he handed the boy a shoebox and said, “There’s a pair of spikes in there. You need more traction around first base; those tennis shoes you’ve been wearing don’t cut it. The spikes will work out better.”

The boy opened the box and smiled when he saw the shiny cleats and, surprisingly, trying the right shoe on, discovered that it fit his foot perfectly. He wondered how the coach had known the correct size.

“I’m painting a couple of rooms at the house this weekend,” his coach said. “You can pay for the spikes by giving me some help with the painting. Sound O.K.?’

“Yeah! Thanks Coach!” the boy replied with unusual enthusiasm.

Emboldened by the obvious caring of his friend’s mother, his coaches and his teachers, the boy occasionally allowed a glimpse of what he would be like if he could put aside what they perceived to be his shyness. They saw a likeable boy but one whose trust might never be totally earned.

This day had been an especially good one. He’d received a B+ on an English test and then there was the game. His team, the Washington Colonials, had beaten the Franklin Quakers, 7 to 4. He played a flawless game at first base and, with three runners on base, he’d caught hold of a fastball and sent it over the fence. Later, his double accounted for two more runs.

Now, an hour after showering and walking the seven blocks to the alley, he sat on the apple box and simply watched the house. His mother and stepfather were inside. Probably his brothers as well. They were not a family since this latest man had come to live with them. They were not allowed to speak to each other. Any attempt to speak to each other, an elbow on the table or a swing at an imaginary opponent, inevitably elicited a shout with the threat of physical violence. Inside the walls of this house the devil ranted, or so it seemed to the boy.

The boy had always made his own money. His first job had been selling potatoes. He and his older brother had discovered a warehouse where, at night, trucks loaded with burlap sacks full of potatoes, backed up to a dock. Spaced evenly along the dock were four conveyor belts with foot high metal sides to keep the potatoes from falling out and onto the ground. But, inevitably, a couple from each sack found a hole and fell to the dirt below. The two boys gathered them up and placed them in a wagon and sold them door to door.

After the potato season ended he sold newspapers on the city streets. His only words as people passed him by were, “Paper, sir?” Or “Paper, ma’am?” And the answer he received most often, usually from the men, was “Can’t read, kid!” His mother, a funny and caring woman before his stepfather had come to live with them, told him that he should reply, “Then you should smell it, sir. It has the distinct odor of barnyard excrement and the content is pretty much the same!” He laughed when she suggested this, but, of course, he never repeated it to a single customer.

In just a few minutes he would have to leave the garage and begin the long walk to his present job of selling concessions at Parker Field where the minor league Yakima Bears were scheduled to begin a four game series with the Vancouver Capilanos.

He didn’t like the job. He had to yell out whatever he was selling and that was hard at first; but the yelling of peanuts or ‘soft drinks’ came more easily each time he worked a game.

He continued to watch the house across the alley. He considered going in for something to eat before his trek to Parker Field but decided the potential of an encounter with his stepfather wasn’t worth the risk.

When it was time to go, he left the garage and walked past the house where he lived, then crossed the heavily traveled First Street and over to Front Street where the Rhodes potato warehouse was. From there he threaded his way through a few industrial buildings and eventually crossed some railroad tracks. Fifteen minutes later he was being waved through the gate at Parker Field by one of the ticket takers.

The boy had timed it perfectly. The game would start in a half hour at eight. He would work until about ten-fifteen. Tonight he would sell hot dogs and make a few dollars more than when he sold peanuts or soft drinks. The time went fast. Some of the customers joked with him but he didn’t know what to say, so he smiled faintly and moved on to the next customer. A couple of boys from his school waved at him and he nodded solemnly and continued his work.

By ten o’clock he’d sold all of his hot dogs. His last customer, a man sitting with four children, bought the remaining five. He left Parker Field with a pocket full of money, but now he was hungry and the darkness of the railroad tracks loomed ahead.

The few blocks between Parker Field and the tracks were lighted and he covered the mile or so in good time. All light ended at the path that led through a vacant lot toward the first set of tracks. As he stepped over them an uneasiness set in. He knew he wasn’t alone. Muffled voices could be heard in the distance; either tramps or idle railroad workers. His wariness quickened his step and in just moments he had emerged from the darkness into the light of First Street.

He crossed First Street and cut between Bell’s Veterinary Clinic and the used car lot that took up the rest of the block. A minute later and he was standing at the wood steps at the rear of the house in the alley. He didn’t go in immediately. A six foot wire fence separated the house from the used car lot. He leaned against the fence steeling himself for the experience ahead of him.

Moments went by. Then minutes. He thought he heard a humming sound as he reached to open the door, but then he realized that it was actually an inaudible tenseness that ran through his body. Any sound created by the opening of the door and his stepfather would rain curses down upon him. Another noise and his stepfather would pound on the wall and shout threateningly. He swore to himself; on this night he would not only open the door in absolute silence, but he would be stealthy enough, and brave enough, to open the refrigerator and find something; a sandwich, some chicken, something to still the hunger pains.

He turned the knob and the unlocked door opened quietly. He closed it just as quietly, hearing only the humming created by what seemed to be an electrical current coursing through his body. Three steps, taken thirty seconds apart, and he was at the refrigerator. All was going well. But then, buoyed by the day’s successes, his good test score, the homerun and the money he’d made, he relaxed and opened the refrigerator door too quickly, creating the slightest of sounds. He knew what was coming.

“Fiesa hock a sockadimint!”, his stepfather swore in his native German followed by, “Get out of that goddamn refrigerator. Go to bed before I come out there! Jesus Christ, goddamn kids!” The tension was suddenly gone replaced by fear and the dread of tomorrow and the next day. And the day after that.

His bed was the middle one of three bunk beds in a small room just off the kitchen. He opened the door and quietly began taking his clothes off. He knew that his brothers were awake but were afraid to say anything for fear of causing another barrage of obscenities and threats.

He slipped between the covers and soon fell asleep.

He awoke the next morning to a pounding on the door, the same one that he’d come through so quietly the night before. He got up, slipped quickly into his pants, shirt and shoes and went to answer the door. Standing at the door was his stepfather’s brother-in-law holding the sports section of the newspaper.

“You’re in here” he said with a smile. “There are headlines about your homerun.”

He handed the paper to the boy pointing to a story about halfway down the page. The story was only three or four paragraphs long but sure enough, his name was in bold headlines just above the story telling of his team’s seven to four victory over the Quakers.

Just then his stepfather emerged from his bedroom. He looked from his brother-in-law to the boy. Both were smiling. He took the newspaper from the boy’s hands and glanced at the headlines and the story.

“Hmmph” he grunted. He turned toward the wood stove, opened the grate at the front and stuffed the paper inside. He then gathered some kindling beside the stove and placed the wood pieces on top of the paper. Then he lit the paper with a match.

The boy watched the flames lick upward toward the kindling for just a moment. In that moment he could think of only one place he wanted to be. He turned and went out the door and crossed the alley to the garage. He walked to the rear of the garage as if he was going to the grocery store on the corner. But instead, he entered the garage and took up his vigil of the house from the apple box.

The future was clearer to him now. There would be triumphant moments resulting from his athletic prowess. And there would be success in the classroom. And he would work on his sociability, eventually making progress toward normalcy in that area. He would pay some dues for these successes, these triumphs . . . the dues, at least for now, were simple.

At the end of each day he would go home to the house in the alley.

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