Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lost

I was six years old when my mother finally moved us back to southeast Idaho from Boise. My sister and I had been born in Idaho Falls, but Pocatello was less than an hour away and we looked forward to being able to spend more time with our grandparents and cousins. Our move coincided with my first day of school and even though we only lived a block away from Lewis & Clark Elementary, and even though I'd been a latch-key kid the previous year, my mom insisted I walk from school to The Jolly Daycare Center every day after class let out. The trouble was I could never remember exactly where the damn daycare was located, which was really just the converted basement of Mr. and Mrs. Jolly's home. My mother drove the route from school to the Jolly's several times, and one of my teacher's had arranged to either escort me herself or have an older, wiser third grader show me the way. I was so busy talking about remembering the way to school, with whomever was escorting me, that I never really paid that much attention to the route itself. Plus, the older boy held my hand as he'd been instructed to do and I think some portion of my focus must've gone in that direction. Somehow or another that first week I managed to arrive at the Jolly's front step without ever being aware of quite how I got there. Oh well, I thought. I'm here, no need to worry.

And then week two arrived. I still had no idea how exactly I was supposed to get there and passed my day coloring and learning to count and hoping I presented a reasonable facsimile of the sort of kid who knows how to get from Point A to Point B. It wasn't until class let out and I set off on my own that I got into trouble.

I wasn't all that excited about arriving anyway. Unlike other daycares I attended with my sister, this one was no fun. The Jollys were horrible people who had almost as many children themselves as children they were paid to look after. The Jolly kids, many of them older than myself, were not good people, and treated the rest of us poorly, which somehow escaped the attention of the teachers the Jollys had hired to do their dirty work. At one point I remember being locked in a basement room without a window with thirty other kids. When the lights were turned out we all began to scream and pound on the walls but no one came to our rescue. It seemed like an eternity before someone finally released us, although I will admit, being locked in the dark at the age of six in a very small place with countless kicking and screaming other warm bodies can produce the sensation of a much longer period of time. The Jollys provided barely edible snacks and taught us Mormon Sunday school songs, which even then rubbed me the wrong way. It made perfect sense to me why I was in no hurry to get to daycare: singing "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree" while choking down a piece of dry graham cracker would be too much for anyone.

I never made it to the Jollys on my own. That first day, the one and only time I attempted it I ended up making a wrong turn and found myself on McKinley Avenue, which seemed a large and extremely busy road to my six year old eyes. Up and down the street I wandered and as the panic began to grow I realized I was about to face the kind of situation every first grader had been warned about: I knew I'd have to talk to a stranger, not just talk to one, but approach and strike up the conversation which would surely lead to my death. We'd all seen the reel to reel films of little Jimmy getting into the long, green station wagon driven by the fat, bald man, probably a homosexual, who offered Jimmy candy and other treats. Once Jimmy climbed in, it was a slow fade to black and the police officer climbing the steps to Jimmy's parents front door was explanation enough as to the fate that had befallen that little idiot who'd been seduced by the dark powers of a handful of butterscotch candies. I knew enough to steer clear of passing cars, but I also knew that I'd have to knock on someone's door, which would most likely be the very home where little Jimmy had been taken to spend the last, sugar-high minutes of his short life. The sun was sitting low in the west and I knew I needed help fast. Thoughts of innocent, golden-haired me roaming McKinley Avenue after dark, and every day and night ever afterward, flashed through my brain. God only knew what would become of me.

Hysterical and with tears pouring down my face I stopped on the sidewalk before two houses. There was a momentary dilemma as I tried to decide which one to choose. The one on the right looked like any ordinary home, green siding, a small front yard, a truck parked in the driveway, someone's bike leaning against the mailbox. The house on the left was white, the yard was immaculate, flowers had been planted in nice little rows in narrow little beds all along the property. It smelled of cookies and I could hear a woman singing from somewhere inside. The house on the left seems the obvious choice, right? Wrong! Picking that house would surely equal death! I'd heard the story of Hansel and Gretel enough to know you never pick the good-looking cottage, not unless you're jumping at the opportunity to be fattened up and turned into a gingerbread cookie!

Right it was. Hardly able to see through my tears and gasping for breath, I reached out my small, pale hand and knocked lightly on the door. I could hear someone moving around inside, someone big from the sound of his steps. I backed up and questioned myself. Were trolls easier to escape than witches? At least the witch had been nearly blind and easily fooled by a chicken bone. Trolls could smell children! I was doomed!

But a troll did not open the door. Instead it was a man, probably as old as I am now. He was tall, wore bright blue jeans and a nicely pressed white button-up shirt. He had dark hair, glasses and large, tan hands. When he saw a crying child on his step he knelt down and held the door open as I explained through gasps that I was lost, looking for the Jolly Daycare center and was afraid I'd die alone on the street. I asked if he knew where it was, could he point me in the right direction. He knew exactly where to find it, not five blocks from where he lived; his own children had gone there years before, and he'd be more than happy to take me there himself. But first he wanted to call the Jollys and let them know I'd been located and would be arriving shortly. Everything seemed to be going well–no monsters or witches, no horrible candy-wielding men in station wagons–until he invited me inside. Here was the moment. Did I go inside and face certain death or did I reconcile myself to a lifetime of street-walking? Obviously I chose certain death, but only because it offered a cool glass of water and free ride back to the daycare. After making the call and letting me finish my drink the kindly stranger drove me back to the Jolly's house and explained that I shouldn't knock on strange doors, but if I was ever lost on his street I was to find him. I agreed, and feeling a bit like the returning hero, I walked up the front step where Mrs. Jolly, a horrible woman with a beehive as tall as the temple in downtown Salt Lake, stood waiting. She smiled and waved as the man drove away, but once he was out of sight she grabbed me by the arm, yanked hard and ushered me into the dark room where I sat alone, crying once again, for the next half hour. I was finally released to play outside with the others until my mother arrived to retrieve her children. Mrs. Jolly never told my mom what happened, but once I recounted the harrowing events of the day, my mom went back and confronted her. I never saw that crummy little house with the mistreated children ever again, and to this day I couldn't tell you how to get there.

That was thirty years ago, and although I may have occasionally taken a wrong exit or turned down the wrong street once or twice, I haven't been lost like that since.

Until today.

(My what a long lead-in to the actual story, which, it will turn out, isn't nearly as exciting as you'd suppose)

Duncan and I again skirted the edge of the park, but rather than walk across it, we turned west, crossed Pierce and walked down Leawood toward the elementary school there. It's a nice walk, with the little houses and manicured lawns that often remind me of home. We've walked it two or three times before, but today I just kept going, my thoughts caught up in other things, and before I knew it, the sun had set, the nearly full moon had risen and the warmth of the afternoon had faded. Many of the streets in the area twist and turn and several end in sudden little culdesacs. After nearly two hours I still couldn't find my way out of the inescapable neighborhood, so I started using the moon as my guide. Duncan, who wasn't able to spot the four rabbits he chased without my assistance (I swear, he's got the hunting ability of a carrot), was absolutely no use. If we'd been transported to one of those after-school TV shows about kids lost in the woods with only a pack of food and their trusty dog, we'd be dead long before the kindly park ranger or the wizened, but comical, hermit came to our rescue. Duncan would simply chase rabbits as I pointed them out and I be forced to give him bits of our last scraps of graham cracker as a reward.

I've claimed many times that Duncan has led me to poetry, he's shown me beauty and taught me lessons that I strive to remember every day. He just isn't able to show me the way home. But I still love him. We're just not going anywhere too far without a map.

3 comments:

Ruth said...

I didn't know "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree" was a Mormon Sunday school song! Crap. There goes yet another beautiful childhood memory.

Kevi said...

That song is lolevly, and Elijah loves it.

Was that truly your last day at the Jolly's?

Curt Rogers said...

Yes, that was truly my last day at the Jollys. I know it may be hard for someone who dated one of them–another big-haired one–to understand, but they were nothing like they portrayed themselves. To this day when I see one I get the shivers. Have I never told you this story before?