Transplants innately understand the feeling you get while walking around your new neighborhood: This is nice... but it will never truly be mine. Your hometown neighborhood feels like it’s yours, but when you go back to visit you quickly realize it no longer belongs to you either, like seeing an ex-boyfriend who’s moved on or trying on an old shirt that no longer fits.
For me, that’s Peachtree Street. It has a dead end where a lone farmhouse stands on a few casting acres of land where we’d sneak along the property line to watch deer gallop and peek through the jagger bushes at the Sullivan’s mansion just off in the distance.
Mr. Sullivan owned a company of some sort and I’d become friends with his daughter Caroline. She and her brother looked like twins but weren’t. They had a dune buggy and thought nothing of the fact that they’d had a maid.
Peachtree for me wasn’t what it was for her. Not because our lives were all that different, but because my nuclear family broke and the pieces fell apart in disparate directions. We all live in separate places now, all four of us. Picture a handful of Pick Up Sticks standing up straight, a fist at their tops gently letting them all go. They fall down in slow motion, making a loud xylophone clatter at the last possible moment.
One of our household chores was picking up all the branches in our yard before my father mowed the lawn. One branch in the blades could mean a broken lawn mower, and we didn’t want that. Once we finished, our father would walk us around our several-acre yard by the square foot, reviewing our performance. For every branch he found, he docked our allowance a nickel. At the end of the week, he’d pay us our four dollar bills each with a final pile of change that he’d strip the nickels away from, one by one, reminding us of what we’d forgotten.
Around our house, there wasn’t any half-assin’ it and maybe that’s a Pittsburgh thing because I’ve never heard it anywhere else and when I say it here, it’s too critical for California.
But it wasn’t all chores at Peachtree. We had a garden, B.B. guns for shooting empty pop cans hung from the two crab apple trees that produced fruit too sour to eat.
We spent the summers in our above-ground pool where my brother once dunked me so hard, I thought I’d never make it up for air again. I erupted out from beneath the water’s flat glass surface gasping, grasped the pool’s outer wall for strength, and hoisted myself up only to be attacked by a swarm of wasps who had made their home beneath the pool’s outer edge. They stung my fingers, my neck, my eyelids.
Our father made me play in little league the next day like nothing had ever happened, though the tender skin around my right eye was so swollen I could only see out of my left. I struck out quickly, and our mother pulled me off the field. The team wasn’t at a loss. I was known to take my glove off and pick daisies in the outfield.
Peachtree was where I saw Lee, my brother, get beaten up by the two punk kids down the street who cowered behind their mother when my father confronted them, not for beating up Lee, but for egging our front window.
The night before, my father had heard it happening and quickly shone a flashlight on the culprits, saw the two brothers stumble-running out from beneath the twin evergreen trees at the front of our property.
This had infuriated my father, a man who took care of his property like it was his only pair of shoes. Yet when the same two culprits returned a few years later and bullied Lee, I followed my father’s lead and we’d just stayed in the house and looked on through the sheer curtains my mother had hung along the dining room window before the separation. “If I go out and save him, he’ll never learn to stand up for himself,” said my father. I was ten and crying. I just couldn’t watch.
My mother had moved into her (our) new house across town at this point, and never knew about the incident with Lee until I told her nearly 20 years later. No surprise, she was horrified that poor Lee had to harbor that moment alone. He was only 14. My mother’s parenting was on the opposite side of the spectrum from my father’s. She once cried when Lee scraped his knee. Today, Lee wouldn’t harm a fly and doesn’t leave his house. Severe social anxiety, among other things.
Peachtree was where the Mitchells next door hid behind their big trucks and loud cars. Our father called their father “the troll” because of the time he cut down a tree that was technically on our property. If there was one way to piss off our father, and there were many, it was to damage one of his trees. Our father had the land surveyed, hammered stakes topped with neon pink elastic into the ground along our perimeter and left them there until snowfall. He and “the troll” never made amends.
Peachtree is where we raised three dogs – Freedom, Jive, and Peanut, the latter of whom I was too young to really know. But Freedom and Jive I knew, two black mutts with toffee-colored accents like they too were twin siblings, though they’d lived half a decade apart. Freedom and Jive were hit by trucks on nearby highway 286 where we knew not to stand when waiting for the school bus.
The dogs spent much of their days tied up to a long zip-cord that ran the span of our backyard where they were free to run and catch groundhogs down by the cherry trees where my brother had created a pet cemetery, just like the movies. But every time winter came, we couldn’t decipher where the headstones had been, the wood crosses made of nailed-together scrapwood. There, our memorials grew over with weeds and dirt and potato bugs like they were never meant to be there in the first place. And just like that, we’d move on. As kids, you don’t realize how pets’ deaths indirectly prepare you for what’s to come in life (for everyone).
I don’t know why many of my memories of growing up on Peachtree don’t involve my mother, although she raised us and lived there too until I was seven and she and my father finally decided to separate. He bought my mom a house of her own. She agreed to continue to wash his work shirts. To this day, my mother asks, “Don’t you remember all the crafts I did with you, and how we grew pumpkins, and you won the blue ribbon because yours was so big? It’s like you only remember the good things about your dad.” And maybe she’s right, because when someone dies you cling to the good stuff and purge what no longer serves you: the dog kicks, the plates smashing.
What I do remember about my mother at Peachtree is the way she used to enter the house after she and my father split up to pick the dead leaves from all of the houseplants. She’d be dropping us off after school for a few nights at our dad’s before he returned home from work. While we were settling in, dropping our backpacks and wet jackets on the couch and changing out of our school clothes, she’d prune herself into a place of safety in this first home where she’d had the miscarriage, the two twin siblings I’d maybe have today if things had gone differently.
My father would come home later, she’d be long gone, and he’d see that something had changed. He’d called her up and yell at her for it, knew she’d been snooping around and why was she in his house in the first place? She was just supposed to drop off us kids.
I came across a home movie where my mother looks angry, is taking big, deep drags from her Virginia Slims cigarette. My brother and I are happy, hunting for Easter eggs in our living room and the sunroom glittered with stained glass ornaments stuck to the windows with small rubber suction cups.
My brother roots me on: “I think there’s one more egg hiding around here somewhere, Laura,” leading six-year-old me to where it is. His voice is sweet and quiet, the most comforting thing.
But all along in the background of the video, as my brother and I run laps around her, my mother is angry. My father narrates the video from behind the camcorder like he always did, always the artist behind the lens. He says, “And there’s Sharon,” zooming the camera in on her face. It’s a close-up of her nose (my nose), her sharp blue eyes that say everything even when she doesn’t want them too. “What’s wrong, Sharon?” he asks.
She’s beautiful there in her sad glory when the cigarette is out of frame until she pipes, “Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s just peachy,” her tongue sharp with the word “peach” to prove a point.
She knew my father was cheating on her with Phoebe Thompson at this point, though my brother and I knew nothing of it. Even if we had, we would have been two young to understand. Phoebe would come into our lives later only to fall back out after a few unsuccessful visits getting to know us kids. Rumor has it we had too much of our mother in us. You could see her in our faces.
Peachtree held our secrets in the palms of its hands like a priest carrying a candle to the pulpit—and while my mother, brother, and I are still alive, I believe all of us, my father of course included, haunt that house and street to some degree.
When I’m back visiting Pittsburgh, I drive the 40 minutes east to Murrysville to see the house I grew up in. I park behind the hollowing evergreen trees and picture my father laid out in the living room ready for hospice. Santana plays in the background. Incense is lit. “Let’s get the ball rollin’,” he’d said, delirious from the Morphine, touting his signature line one last time in a context that was new to us. Let’s get the ball rollin’—he was asking God to put his foot on the gas.
In his last few months alive, my father wondered if the cancer was punishment for what he did to my mother, mainly for falling for Phoebe and letting his anger so often get the best of him. And when he asked my mother directly if she thought the cancer was what he deserved, my mother told him she didn’t know… Maybe.
“He wanted to get back with me when he was really sick, Laur,” she’d said once I was grown. “He didn’t want to go out alone.” My mother keeps a handwritten note from my father in an old nightstand in the corner of her bedroom. In the note, my father apologizes for the cheating, taking her for granted, and, I assume, changing the fate of our lives. “Well, what did you tell him?” I asked, wishing the story had ended differently.
“Tell him in response to what?” asked my mother.
“He wanted to get back with you. Didn’t you want to?” I prodded.
With a sip of her American Spirits cigarette (a “healthier” option than what she used to smoke), she said, “I told him it was too late.”
Laura Vrcek has an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and works as a ghostwriter for Silicon Valley tech executives. Her poetry and nonfiction work have appeared in Apple Valley Review, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, The Orange Dot, The Red Clay Review, and on Perspectives, a storytelling segment on KQED, NPR’s San Francisco affiliate. She lives in Northern California and is writing a memoir about experiencing illness from the outside, looking in.