Strange Meadow by Patrick King

Deep in sleep, somewhere lost, somewhat familiar. I find myself again on Meadow Drive. Sometimes spectacular, sometimes beautiful. Inevitable. No, this isn’t Meadow Drive anymore. Convergence, extinction, alchemy. It’s all the same nightmare anyway.

I fall asleep a man in my mid-thirties but in my dreams I’m once again a child of seven, eight years old. The man is married and has cats and a dog and he’s living in weird suburbia, an odor of respectability.

Upstate New York, twenty minutes from Ithaca. I spent six years, more or less, of my childhood on Meadow Drive. It wasn’t the most important time of my life, but it was the formation of something, pupa before cocoon, the crystal’s lattice. We moved there from Frederick, Maryland, where my dad was working at Fort Detrick. Now he was going to Cornell to study for his PHD. And so my parents bought the red brick house on Meadow Drive. Three bedrooms on the top floor, kitchen and living room on ground level, and a basement.

I close my eyes and there I am: young seven-year-old Patrick riding his bicycle, all alone. Nobody around and very happy with that. Alone except for the very few houses around me and beyond them cornfields and woods, my friends somewhere in the back of my mind. The trick was to build up enough speed so that you could take your feet off the pedals for a few seconds and just glide.

But, of course, I’m not always alone. Sometimes there’s Nick and Doug. We were a childhood trio that made up the core of a small group of kids who lived on Meadow Drive.

August 20th, 1986. Freeville, New York. I was going to turn six the next day. Doug had turned six in May. Nick was seven, but he would be eight in December. The pair of them knocked on the door to our red brick house in late afternoon, as my mom and dad were still unpacking. “Is there a boy here?” Nick asked. And indeed there was, myself, who greeted them shyly but glad to have some company other than my three year old brother Dave, who was my only companion for a month or so when we lived in a hotel while my mom and dad shopped for a proper house. And so my parents led us out to the back yard where we played on an old swing set that the previous owners had left behind. We stood up on the swings and got a little air as my mom, big with baby brother Michael, due in December, and Dad and little brother Dave watched. Nick and Doug were unaccompanied. Their parents just let them run loose.

That’s how it worked then and maybe even now on Meadow Drive. You freed your children, let them wander. But I swung my swing a little to the right and ended up hitting a tooth on one of the swing set poles and went crying toward the back porch and the sliding glass doors of my new house. Mom told the boys it was probably time to end things for now, but the next day they were at the house again, at an impromptu cake and ice cream birthday party and there was no question from there that we were friends.

Meadow Drive in Freeville was a circle, about a half mile or so in circumference. Isolated, Freeville wasn’t even a town. It was indeed a village. Strange, but it seemed like our Meadow Drive was the entire town anyway. Everything houses and woods. Cornfields and woods. Miles to the nearest general store, an aging shop next to a rusty gas station where you could purchase essentials. But mostly the humble people of Freeville and Meadow Drive just drove a few miles to Dryden, an actual town, where there was a stoplight, a supermarket, a library, a high school. In the early 1990’s, there was even a Burger King.

Idyllic, I think that’s what some people call it. The perfect place to raise a child. There was isolation, humble houses. There were gracious church-going people, racists and rednecks. Their horrors were mostly private.

And yes, we were so isolated that it was almost inevitable that us little boys of around the same age would become friends if for no other reason than lack of choice. But who really needs to make decisions like that when your world is all pop culture and everyone looks the same. Strange thing, this. We looked and talked like the white people on TV. We were TV. We stared straight ahead. And so Nick and Doug and myself became friends and the kids who were almost teenagers, a few years older than Nick, were also friends, and they also played with GI Joes, but they were growing out of them and getting more into skateboarding and building ramps and in fact we called them “the teenagers.” They hung out at the house next door to mine. I remember once one of them broke his leg when he had a skateboarding accident and he sat on our living room couch writhing in pain while my dad got him to calm down a bit and called an ambulance. And yes, those teenagers. We wanted to be as cool as them.

Or maybe that’s just what Nick wanted. Everyone needs someone to look up to, I suppose, and Doug and I had Nick. Or at least I had Nick. I think his influence on Doug waned pretty early. But Nick, for now, was the leader, so we did what he did. I stopped playing with my He-Man figures because Nick didn’t have any and besides he thought they were weird. So I started using my dollar or fifty cents per week in allowance to save for GI Joes. I had a small collection. I’d never catch up to Nick. He seemed to have every new figure that was released, even the girl Joes. Sometimes we’d combine our Joes for a giant battle, but very often bringing my own was a moot point. He had most of what I had anyway. Doug, too, had an impressive collection of figures, but nowhere near Nick’s. Still, it was bigger than mine.

Even in our play, though, even so early on, there were differences. Nick insisted on starting on a new story every time we played. New home bases at opposite sides of his room for the good guys and bad guys. Whoever had gotten killed in the last battle was back to life now. He was certainly less sentimental than I was. I preferred one continuous story. I wanted to connect the threads. I wanted our figures to have a history. I think I saw them as living beings, each with a sort of soul. So secretly, when Nick started a new story, I played my game of continuity, making up reasons why figures were seemingly back from the dead, why they had made it back to their bases, why the battle they were fighting yesterday was continuing for another day.

Nick was a year and a half older than myself and Doug. He was always taller and stronger than the two of us, but Doug and I were about the most wiry, skinny little fellas you’d ever seen, so it didn’t take much. Funny to think now how fat I would get when I became an adult, but then so weak, so easy to dominate.

It was a good ol’ fashioned white folk childhood. Should have been happy enough but even then I was alone. I was always the new kid. There was a family in the red brick house before us and Nick and Doug had a friend who lived there and they referred to him by name. Meanwhile, before New York, I had seen all sorts of places. Born in San Antonio, onward to Jacksonville, then somewhere in New Jersey, Munich, Frederick. All before Freeville, where my dad had moved us so he could study for his PHD in immunology, paid for by the United States Army. I suppose this was my first idea as a young man of what a real home was like. But Nick and Doug had lived their short lives so far in the same small neighborhood. They played with the kid who had lived in the house before me. The swing had been his. So was the dirt hill in the woods just beyond my yard that had an old rope attached to a tree branch where we all swung. Essentially, it was just a pile of dirt left over after a dig, but to us it was a hill, another place of adventure. All this was theirs before it was mine, and that child that once lived in my house was a ghost, an angel.

And I guess I never really learned how to make friends. Nick and Doug always had friends from outside the neighborhood visiting for sleepovers, or they went to their friends’ places. Billy was my friend in first grade and he sometimes spent the night in my basement and we played Monopoly, but I think that was because his mother and mine were friends somehow. Actually, Billy and I became pretty close and he even joined Doug and a kid named Scott in my Cub Scout group. But besides Billy there wasn’t anyone else until I got to fourth grade and met Scott. Yes, yes, I did have a noticeable shyness, but that really wasn’t it. There was something else. A built-in sadness of some sort. It even took a lot of courage to walk across the street and knock on Nick’s door. Doug’s house was somewhat easier to handle. Everything was easier around Doug. But I mostly hung out in the basement or in my room until Nick or Doug knocked on the front door and I heard one or both of them ask, “Can Pat play?” and I ran like a maniac down the stairs filled with happiness, ready for adventure.

And a flurry of bicycles as we raced around the Meadow Drive loop, and I was always in last place because I got winded. But I got used to being in last place. It made sense at the time. I was the youngest, after all. In 1988, when we all had Nintendos, I always got beat. And not only did Nick have the biggest GI Joe collection, but he was able to make his voice sound just like the characters in the cartoon. It was an odd talent, but there it was. I thought everyone could do it if they tried hard enough. Nick did too, and he would always show me how to make the voice sound like it should, but the voice always sounded too much like my own.

“Go anywhere you want,” Mom said, except I couldn’t go to the “swamp.” It was a section of woods a few feet from the road that sloped and filled with rainwater. But it seemed to loom large and to us it was a swamp. We were usually able to walk around the periphery without getting wet, but once I fell in and got wet from head to foot. Luckily, it was summertime. Warm. And so I walked shamefully home because there was nothing to do but get changed into dry clothes. Mom asked whether I’d been to the swamp and of course I couldn’t deny it.

And so I spent a prime summer week up in my room, grounded. But I had my toys and my Hardy Boys novels. If forced away from the TV, I could have a good time with books. And if I got especially bored, I could pretend I was in prison and my mother was an evil warden. It was actually rather fun. Except for the time there was a knock on the door and of course it was Nick and Doug and I heard the familiar sound coming from downstairs: “Can Pat play?” and my mom said, “Sorry, boys, he’s grounded.” Shame. Embarrassment. What a predicament, to be so under the thumb of authority. I wondered if they were laughing at me as they walked away. But they weren’t like that. They were real friends when it came down to it. I imagine, however, that they were rather confused. Grounded for going to the swamp? Their parents would never have grounded them for that, at least not for a week. And of course my mom was right in being worried that her son would drown. But there I was, an outsider again. This place was not my home.

Certainly, as adults, Nick and I have very little in common. Nick’s a right-wing, uh, gun enthusiast. Air Force man. He was a cop when he was in the service. He moved to Boston for a while to work for Homeland Security. He’s unabashedly pro-cop, a law and order guy who somehow thinks our freedoms are being eroded. But not by the cops, of course. They’re just good ol’ boys doing what’s right.

As for myself, after Mom divorced Dad and moved us down to Bible Belt Alabama where most of her extended family lived, I dreamed, as I most often do, of escape. The freedom I feel pounding through my bloodstream is just as contradictory and hypocritical as Nick’s. I’m a complete anti-cop anarchist liberal bleeding heart anti-PC shitheel. At least Nick is consistent. My rage is a broken, limping animal. It exceeds my possibilities. I’m basically a prick. I’m a homeowner in suburban Frederick, Maryland who still has Molotov cocktails in his belly.

It’s true, though, and of course: Had we not grown up together, Nick and I would most certainly have hated each other, made caricatures of each other.

As for Doug, gee, I wish I knew. I tried to get in touch with him a couple of years ago because I wanted to send him a copy of my first novel. He’s not on Facebook, but his sister Traci is, and she gave me his e-mail. So I sent him a long, rambling letter. I might have seemed more than a bit crazy. Yes, well, so it goes, sometimes. But he never responded. A little disappointing, sure, but what would a guy do when a childhood friend who he hasn’t seen since 2003 sends him a letter out of nowhere, and anyway, he has a family and is living a bit of what you might call the sane life, so best not to get mixed up in all that. Sometimes, perhaps after a little too much wine, I search him out on the Internet. I can find very little. A few pictures on his sister’s Facebook page. Not much else. His resume. This is a man who is very little involved with cyber culture. In that respect, he might be the sanest person on the planet. Best not to disturb a man trying to live a quiet life, his own life, his own freedom.

I also sent Nick a copy of my novel and he read it. Didn’t say anything about enjoying it. The book is a bit nonlinear, a bit experimental. I’m sure he was probably bewildered by the tale of a man in his mid-twenties, based heavily on myself, who leaves his young wife in Alabama so that he can move to Philadelphia and live in weird poverty with a mad poet. But Nick read the novel. On the toilet, he said, remarking that he’s “classy like that” which I thought was quite funny and appropriate. But, goddamn it, he read the book. Somehow I knew he would. And for that, I’m grateful.

Last time I saw Meadow Drive was 1997, during a little overnight visit to Upstate New York in late March, spring break in Alabama, where I was living with Mom and my two little brothers. We were visiting my dad at his house in the D.C. suburbs. Dave had the idea that he wanted to see some friends from Dryden for a day or so. So my dad said why not and we made the six-hour drive. Dave spent the night with some friends while Dad and my youngest brother Michael and I stayed at a hotel. But I got bored and the next day, though I hadn’t planned on it, I gave Nick a call. It was a Friday night, but he wasn’t doing anything.

Dad dropped me off at Nick’s house, the place across the street from the old red brick house where I lived, though it wasn’t his primary residence anymore. He was staying mostly with his mom, who was living with her boyfriend in a house in Dryden.

It was all very surreal. A guy who I had last seen when I was twelve was eighteen years old now, driving a truck and smoking cigarettes. I smoked, too. I drank, for that matter, which I’m sure by then Nick was also no stranger to. And so we drove away into the night. Nick put some Enya, which I thought was a little weird. Seemed less manly than the alpha personality he wanted to project. We drove to the bowling alley in Dryden and met up with some of his old friends, none of whom I recognized, but some of whom I’m sure I had gone to school with at one point or another. We went to the movies after that, saw a flick about Howard Stern. We went back to Meadow Drive afterward and talked in his room for a while. I mentioned that I had seen my old friend Scott earlier in the day and Nick said with a kind of shocked whispered scowl that there were rumors that he was, you know, gay. Then we farted into test tubes, hoping they would keep overnight. Turns out they don’t. After that, we went to sleep, Nick in his twin bed and myself in a sleeping bag on the floor.

That was the last time I saw him. Probably the last time I’ll ever see him. I plan on taking my wife Katie to the Ithaca area at one point or another, but he’s not there anymore. After working for Homeland Security in Boston, he moved back to Dryden, where the cost of living was far less. He spent quite a few years there before moving to Myrtle Beach to work for a company that ran a chain of gyms. Then he met a woman online from rural Illinois, near Kentucky. They live out there now, in a small conservative town. I don’t see how our lives might intersect. But I guess that doesn’t really matter very much.

I don’t know exactly why, but I didn’t even consider looking Doug up on that 1997 trip to Freeville. Nick didn’t mention him either. I don’t think they hung out much, if at all, at that point. In middle school, when I started skipping class all the time, he was hanging out with a very clean-cut, popular clique, and they all seemed very square. By then my sense of myself as an outsider was pretty fully developed. It never occurred to me to try to sit with him at the popular kids’ table at lunch. True, Nick was never an outcast, but he never really ran with the popular kids either. I guess he was somewhere in the middle. Anyway, looking Nick up just made sense. He was always like the big brother I never had. To this day, I have a feeling that I somehow owe him my loyalty, even though we have virtually nothing in common. I remember when I was eleven, just before Mom moved us to a grey house on Gee Hill, Nick spent the summer with his new BB gun, shooting stuff up. Guns always terrified me, but I still spent my time by his side. I nervously watched as we stood in his backyard and he pumped his BB gun before firing a shot at some GI Joes he had lined up a few feet away on a piece of wood that was balanced on some concrete blocks, taking aim and finally firing a giant hole in a figure’s plastic chest. I even followed him around the neighborhood as he used his gun to shoot at birds and occasionally he would actually hit one and I felt terrible watching the poor creature fall out of the sky and onto the ground.

A year and a half previous, my family spent the first half of 1990 in Bangkok. Going from a tiny town in Upstate New York to one of the biggest cities in the world seemed crazy. But there we were. Dad had finished his PHD and was working with a team of scientists researching a vaccine for the dengue virus. I had little idea that Mom and Dad were having troubles, but Mom ended up going back to the U.S. a few months after we got there. Dad said she was homesick for the U.S., which of course seemed plausible enough to a nine year old. Maybe a month after Mom left, Dad put the three of us on a plane with a co-worker who was heading to D.C. and our mom picked us up at the airport and drove us back to the red brick house on Meadow Drive, where we would spend two more years at the only place I had ever really considered home.

I guess Nick didn’t know I was coming back, and he was quite happy to see me on that hot summer day. But I was running around the neighborhood wearing a Spiderman mask that dad’s co-worker bought me at one of the many airport layovers. I guess I was really into the whole Spiderman thing, so when Nick found me and said hi, I denied being Patrick King at all and wanted him to think I was an actual superhero in disguise. After a few failed attempts to convince him, he finally sighed and said, “Okay, I guess we’re playing with masks,” and went home to get one of the many Halloween masks he had stashed away and we played superheros for a while. Finally, I stopped trying to convince him I was someone else.

And we kept playing for the next two years. Until August 1992, when the bank finally took our house. We moved to Dryden, the big town, but up a hill. A grey house on a road called Gee Hill. It was actually far more isolated than the place on Meadow Drive. And for some reason Mom felt like it was time to end the freedom I had on Meadow Drive. If I wanted to be somewhere, I had to tell her where and when and she would drive me there. She wouldn’t even let me ride my bike to Scott’s house, which was just a mile or so down the street. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why she changed her mind so dramatically, except that perhaps her depression had really taken hold, as it does from time to time with members of my family. Maybe she felt alone and wanted her kids around all the time, isolated as she was herself from her family, way down in Birmingham, Alabama. I suppose the only reason we didn’t actually move down to Alabama in 1992 was that Mom was studying for her bachelor’s in information science at Ithaca college, and besides, she was broke.

There were a few neighbors on Gee Hill, but no real sense of a neighborhood. Nobody came to introduce themselves to us when we moved in. There was a dairy farm across the street. A few scattered houses. Suddenly, I realized that I actually had no clue how to go about making friends.

And so it happened that there were only two more times, both in 1992, when I saw my Meadow Drive friends, at least while my family still lived in New York. Once was on my twelfth birthday in August. Nick, Doug and Scott visited the Gee Hill house for a birthday party. We chased around the yard, playing kid games as we transitioned into teenagers. I was gifted mostly VHS tapes, including some Rocky movies that I was missing. We had a great time. The day was over too soon.

I didn’t live on Meadow Drive anymore, which meant I wasn’t part of Meadow Drive, and that broke me, so I didn’t much like visiting the place, but in October, Halloween, Nick and I would hang out for the last time while I still lived in New York. Doug wasn’t there. I’m not sure why. He was deep into the popular clique by this point, so I guess he was out at some middle school version of a party. Mom drove us to the neighborhood and Dave played with Nick’s little brother Jay and my baby brother Michael did whatever a five year old does. I brought my buddy Scott, who was quite effeminate as it was, but who really freaked Nick out when he came out dressed as Catwoman, in a tight black faux-leather costume his mother had made for him. Batman Returns had just come out and everyone loved the movie, but Nick looked Scott over, shrugged and said, “Okay…” and we went out around the neighborhood and instead of trick ‘r treating, we sprayed shaving cream in people’s cars and mailboxes.

And that was it.  Almost exactly three long years passed in that grey house on Gee Hill before we finally moved down to Alabama. I filled my time with a lot of TV, wrestling magazines, sometimes books, but I found my concentration for those things almost non-existent. I hung out in the woods by myself and became a prince among the bugs. Mom, Dave, Michael, couldn’t figure out where I was but I sat on a blanket and could see them through the leaves as they packed into the van and went for a ride to the grocery store.

The thing I felt most curious about, something that didn’t help my sense of isolation at all, was that, though I never called Nick or Doug on the phone, they never called me either. I began to wonder whether we were actually ever friends. I got paranoid. I watched more TV.

I sat in my room in that grey house on the hill. I could have freedom, I thought. Just run, run. Or just get on your bike and glide down the hill. But I couldn’t do it. I was too scared or too angry. Once I told my brothers I was going out to ride my bike and I did and when I got home my mom yelled at me. Which was weird. I remembered doing this all the time on Meadow Drive, and I was much younger, too. What the hell had happened?

August 1995 and we were unloading our stuff into a townhouse in Hoover, Alabama, a Birmingham suburb. Mexican day workers lived in the surrounding apartments. There were a few white kids about my age. And I realized then that I could start over. I could invent any past I wanted. Potential friends were only a few feet away. What I did now was largely out of Mom’s control, whether she realized it then or not. But before I got down to the business of making friends, there was one thing I still had to do. It was during the first week or so in Alabama when I gave Nick a call. I figured his number hadn’t changed and I was right. I stood in the kitchen and the two of us talked. It was a strange conversation, made stranger still because there was actually continuity between us. We talked as if we had never stopped talking. We were teenagers now, moving onto very different lives, but it became understood then that we would always be in each other’s lives, if only in a very minor way. That phone call started something. I would give him a call every couple years. Then I started following him on social media, first on Myspace, then Facebook. We don’t talk on the phone anymore, of course, but we do e-mail back and forth every year or so. And so, in a very small way, our conversation continues. Maybe it will always continue. Maybe I will be an old man and send him a note just before I die. It seems rather sad that we will most likely never see each other again, unless by some miracle he ends up living near Dryden again, and I see him during a visit.

Funny to think now that Doug was the last Meadow Drive person I saw. It was in the spring of 2003. My first wife Kathy and I were visiting Dave at the Air Force base where he was stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I had fallen in love with Boulder, Colorado during a week-long writing workshop at Naropa University in 2001 and had wanted to go back and see the city quite badly. So Kathy and I took a side trip for a couple of days, renting an old hotel room near downtown Boulder. I knew from talking to his mother that Doug was living in Denver. His sister Traci was, too. His mom gave me his number and I gave him a call. He thought it would be fun to drive to Boulder and have dinner with the two of us. The whole thing was awkward. It had been over ten years since Doug and I had really interacted, and we didn’t have much to say to each other. There’s only so many pleasantries that can be exchanged, only so many childhood stories and talk of weather and scenery before the whole thing gets boring. I figured that he and Nick weren’t talking, probably hadn’t been talking for a long time when he called Nick a “dumbass.” Well, anyway, we said we’d keep in touch, but we never did. He’s not on Facebook and in fact has very little imprint on the cyber world at all, so when my novel was published, I had to ask his sister Traci for his e-mail so that I could send him a copy. I wrote him a pretty big letter in which I wrote about the book and updating him on my life, but he never responded. I e-mailed him again a year later. Still no response. I took the hint. There was no reason for him to get back to someone he hadn’t, for all practical purposes, had a relationship with since 1992, but it still stung a little.

When I was seven, Nick came over to spend the night. We were going to watch a movie and then go camping in my backyard, where my dad had set up a tent. The movie was called The Peanut Butter Solution. It was about a preteen kid who visits a haunted house and gets scared, which causes him to lose all of his hair. An old couple, witches, I guess, teach him to mix some ingredients with peanut butter and it makes his hair grow back. The stuff works but the problem is that his hair doesn’t stop growing. Eventually, he gets kidnapped and his hair is used to make paintbrushes. Absurd concept, to be sure, and it didn’t affect Nick at all, but I was terrified. A weird primitive fear moved throughout my body. Nick and I went out to the tent after the movie, but I kept hearing all sorts of screams and sounds and what I thought were animal scratches on the tent and I admitted to Nick that I was afraid. Nick laughed at first and told me I was being silly, but eventually he saw that the fear was real and so he told me we were going back inside. We watched cartoons for a few hours and I felt a little better, at least enough to sleep, enough to dream for a while.

 

 

Patrick King has had short stories, essays, and a novel published in various places online and in print. As P.S. King, he’s had two short film scripts produced. He writes film reviews for TheRetroSet.com, Battleroyalewithcheese.com and Mugwumpcorporation.com and writes about professional wrestling and other pop culture subjects at CulturedVultures.com.

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