When Michael Jackson Lived on Wilson Avenue
When I remember it the sun is going down. The sky still lit up enough to see, that gray haze settling into evening. A snapshot taken with a soft-focus lens. It’s almost dark and the lightening bugs are coming out from wherever they hide in the day time. Not fire flies. I don’t know who says fire flies. Whenever I read about them in books that’s what they call them but where I come from they’re lightening bugs, which when you think of it, is way cooler. Lightening is power and mystery and crackle and you get all that on these little winged things bursting at random in the azaleas that have fizzled for the year. Lightening bugs. Always lightening bugs. When I remember it, it is always June. Hot. The night air heavy with dampness, but not unpleasant. Not like July or August where there is no relief. Warm and stuffy like you forgot to take off your jacket when you walked in the door, but it’s alright. It’s June, so it’s supposed to be that way. When it feels like that it means school is out. It means summer has started. It means no bedtimes. It means riding in the car with my mom a few streets over and a few streets down to Wilson Avenue. June nights in the summer mean my cousins and Super Mario and freeze pops and Michael Jackson. Twenty-five years removed, I walk out of the grocery store with juice and milk for my kids. I look at the sky and see that damp gray haze settling in for the evening. It is June. Michael Jackson died today. I am ten years old again. Backs of my legs stuck to the brown plastic seat of my mom’s Datsun. I am oing to see my cousins.
“Don’t climb out the window.” My mom says wearily as she slides the shifter into gear and turns off the engine. She looks over at me a second too late. I’ve already grabbed the little handle that hangs over the passenger window and I’m sliding my body through and out until I land with a thud on the pavement next to the car. “Why not?” I ask her, picking myself up, dusting myself off. A clumsy child, I have never perfected the landing. “I don’t know why. You’ll mess up the car. Just don’t do it.” She answers vaguely, not sure exactly what reason she should give for why I shouldn’t climb out the window but knowing that it’s just a stupid thing to do and that should be reason enough. She had similar problems with my desire to make a running start and slide across the hood of the car. I had done that exactly once and she had caught me and chewed me up for it. It had not gone well and instead of sliding across like Bo on the Duke’s of Hazzard, my ultimate goal, I had simply hit the hood and bounced onto the driveway, bloodying my knees in the process. It was much harder than it looked on TV. Mom should really wax that hood, I thought to myself. It’s not nearly slippery enough.
I am ten and obsessed with the Duke’s of Hazzard. For months climbing out the window has been my primary form of exit. It drives my mother nuts, but like so many of my childhood quirks she tolerates it. This is the careless 80s when little kids can sit in the front seats of cars if they want. Or wander around the interior unbuckled. Or, my favorite, ride curled up in the back window like a housecat staring at the sky through the glass as we fly down the street, my mother jerkily shifting the car from gear to gear. I pity my children not having that freedom. Tethered for all eternity in a safe and upright position. There’s something to be said for sitting on the console between your mom and dad on the way to dinner on a Friday night. The easiness of it. The unthought-of danger. I argue for months that it would be much more efficient if we simply weld the doors shut like on the General Lee and use only the windows. Despite my well-thought out and thoroughly organized presentations, my mother continually rejects this idea with very little fanfare. “We are not welding the doors shut. I will not climb out the window of the car.” My mom says and I don’t understand. She similarly vetoes my desire to remove the handle from the inside passenger door. I explain that it is simply a waste of space since I no longer needed to actually open and close the door, but I buy her argument that it would look junky if the entire inside of the car didn’t match. I’d let her have that one, but for now I continued to use the window. So far she’s not been quick enough to stop me.
My cousin Jared’s house is a rambling old 1920s craftsman. Battered columns on the porch and black, cedar-shake shingles with the requisite dormer windows on the second story. Giant boxwood hedges separate it from the yard next door where the oldest woman I have ever seen lives and is taken care of by her sister, the second oldest woman I have ever seen. Sometimes we go visit her, just me and my cousin. I don’t really know why. She scares me, but I know it is important to some old people to see children so I try to be polite. She just lays there in that white room, with the white brass bed covered in an ancient white quilt, her skin the texture of a moth’s wing. I can never understand a word she says but my cousin, four years younger than me, is okay with it. He says hello and makes small talk all the while bouncing and jumping, skinny arms reaching up to try to touch the ceiling, always moving, and then the visit is over and we’re off. He is more used to it than me, and infinitely less freaked out. I know it is a good thing to do and that somehow we have brought joy but the thought of that old lady in that even older bed always frightens me. Makes me guilty for my ability to run which I am desperate to employ the second our feet hit the porch.
Getting dark I pick myself up from where I have landed beside the car and head towards the splintery porch. Jared is already in for the evening; no old lady visits this time. I know that earlier in the day there have been dozens of kids in this yard, all throwing a ball or hitting a ball or kicking a ball of various sizes and shapes. My own neighborhood is empty of children for some reason but his is like a street from a 50s movie about Irish kids. They are a couple in every house and they play freely in the yards and on the sidewalks every day. The hill outside a perfect place to race big wheels and green machines. The broad avenue, perfect to launch a kick ball across. His house is always dark, my aunt having the shared love of all the women of our family for ambient lighting. Save the overheads for hospitals and funeral parlors, in our houses it is a handful of lamps in the dark recesses of every room, 12 foot ceilings be damned, the light disappearing before it has a chance to properly escape the lampshade. In each room there is a fan in an open window, the cross breeze doing little to dull the dampness and the warmth of the June evening, the stirring of the air suggesting merely the illusion of “coolness” and “relief” from the heat.
The house is packed with gorgeous oak dining sets and sideboards. Ancient library tables and sofas and rocking chairs. Hand-woven wool rugs. Oil paintings by my cousin’s grandparents, professional artists, hang on the walls: two long-haired teenagers perched at the top of a massive rock deep in a fall wood, a small boy, head resting on his arm gazing at a bird in a cage and an old mandolin. Paintings of my cousins’ dad as a boy and as a young man. Paintings left with my aunt and my cousins in the haste of his exit when he had decided he had had enough of fatherhood and husband-hood and finally left town forever. The debitage from his hasty exit a six year old boy and a ten month old boy and a wife who continues to wear the shock of it on her face. My own dad drives a truck and is gone most of the time, but I always know he’ll come back. That was never in question. You could set your watch to it. That my cousins’ dad was gone for good was a confusing proposition and we don’t know quite what to do with it. My mother and my aunt seem to have a handle on things though. They give the appearance of knowing what to do. They drink coffee, large volumes of coffee. Every evening we hop in the car, come to this house and my mother and my aunt sit at the kitchen table for hours upon hours drinking coffee and doing the work of women: reorganizing the world, making the plans, dissecting the details, while we play.
We walk into the living room from the creaking front porch, screen door slamming behind us, and I can see my aunt standing at the kitchen sink. Hands plunged into the soapy water to fetch a plate she rinses it languidly under the cascade of running water, wipes it dry in a slow and deliberate manner with a thready tea towel, then places it in the cracked plastic strainer. Over and over. A calming mantra of cleanliness and order. I walk through the living room, past the world’s oldest goldfish (this is a neighborhood of superlatives: everything is the oldest and the loudest and the fastest of any place anywhere) who has lived for so long in his tiny glass bowl that he has turned opaque, and into the dining room, tiny lamp in a far off corner giving off just enough light to see the collection of depression glass and the stack of bills on the sideboard, standing among them a tiny doll-sized version of Lurch from The Addams Family. I turn right, walk past the frightening darkness of the stairwell leading upstairs and another right into Jared’s bedroom. He is laying there on his bed, shirt off, playing Nintendo, the end of a blue freeze pop dangling from his mouth. He has just gotten the Nintendo for his birthday and our most recent mission is to get past the dragon in Super Mario Bros.
While the rest of the house is stuffed with old antiques and strange and beautiful artwork Jared’s room is a jumble of broken toys and boy stuff. I pick my way through the minefield of He-Man figures, crushed-up light sabers, baseball cards and old binoculars to the bed and plop down beside him. He smells like all six year old boys smell. Sweat. Dirt. Fruit punch. I catch a whiff of my own son now and I think of him. The smell of a dirty little boy is timeless.
Jared is the skinniest kid in the world. Long arms and legs all bone and sinew. His naked chest narrow and slightly indented, his arms wildly freckled. His slight frame belies his astounding athleticism. He is the most able-bodied person I have ever known, lightening quick and with an amazing control over his limbs, he can catch and throw and jump better than any other kid in the neighborhood. This rail of a boy is topped off with a shiny mop of dark brown hair that hangs over green hazel eyes that are the obvious contribution of his mother. I am a klutz by comparison. Bigger and older, but infinitely more awkward. I can never keep up with him. Like a hummingbird he is in constant motion. Always tapping or moving or dancing or jumping up to try to touch the top of the door frame. A ball always bouncing or being thrown or being kicked. He is perpetual motion. Next to him I am lethargy. Content to sit still and watch and read. His penchant for unrest extends to his mouth. He never shuts up. Being younger than me he knows how to push my buttons, how to wind me up, and he does this to entertain himself. He infuriates me endlessly. He copies me. He taunts me. He breaks my toys and eats my candy. Every experience of our childhood is a shared one after his father’s abandonment. No one in the world has the capacity to frustrate and anger me more. Despite it all, being in his room on Wilson Avenue is the number one place I want to be.
He is the skinniest kid in the world and also the whitest one. He never tans despite endless summers spent outside shirtless or at the pool. It is his greatest desire that his freckles become so dense and tightly packed that they one day all connect to each other giving him a permanent, freckle-colored brownness. Despite his outside whiteness he was born with an inordinate amount of soul. From the beginning we have known this. His father a musician, yes, but with both his mother’s and his father’s obsessive love of music in general. Before his father left them the living room of their house was lined from one end to the other with hundreds and hundreds of albums. The stereo constantly on and constantly loud. From an early age Jared could dance better than your typical four year old white kid and when we would sing in the car, you could always pick him out because he was the only one who knew what he was doing. He knew how it worked. He harmonized. As a four year old his favorite song was Little Red Corvette. As a teenager I had shown him three chords on the guitar the summer before I left for college. I had taken lessons for years and could plunk out a tune if you pointed me in the right direction but that was kind of it. By the time I got back for fall break he had taught himself how to play and was writing his own music. When he was born he had a birthmark in the shape of a guitar on his leg. Maybe that’s why. Or maybe it’s just that some people simply know how things work. They don’t know how they know or why they know, but they know how to exploit it for all of its depth and its beauty. That’s what people call talent.
“When I grow up I want to be black like Michael Jackson.” Says the whitest boy in the world one day. All he asks for for Christmas are shiny black shoes like the ones Michael wears in the Beat It video. We try to explain to him that you couldn’t grow up to be black that you were either born black or not born black, but he refuses to hear it. (This was many years before Michael himself showed us that you could really be whatever color you wanted to be, if you had enough time and enough money.) Jared devotes himself to learning the dance moves and my aunt buys him the red leather jacket with all of the zippers. If anyone could grow up to be Michael Jackson, it would be him. We know every word to every song on Thriller and take great pains in re-enacting the key scenes from our favorite videos. We have the posters on our walls and beg our mothers to take us to Spencer’s so we can buy our own sequined gloves. Those dark and warm summer nights spent on Wilson Avenue all about the details of Thriller. In later years, even Bad. Our moms letting us stay up late so we can watch the video premiere on TV. It’s relative importance in our lives great than any moon landing.
Time moves, we grow, and most of us at some point file away our love for Michael Jackson and Nintendo and freeze pops as pleasant touchstones to the days of our misspent youth, but really Jared never let go of Michael. He never turned into one of those crazies who stood outside of the courthouse waving the “Free Michael” posters or fainted at CD release parties. But he always loved him. He was placed solidly on the shelf that everyone has somewhere labeled “Things That Are Special Beyond Any Reasonable Explanation.” I understood the whole contribution to music thing, I’m a big music snob and I get that part of it, but there are certain aspects of childhood that we hang on to because they are bigger than reality, bigger than what can reasonably be expected from the fact that they merely exist. For my cousin, with his world crumbly and his heart battered from his dad’s unexpected flight a handful of things became bigger than they might have been had circumstances been different. A few solid, happy things forever golden and perfect because of the uncomplicated joy of it.
Which is why on a warm June evening when I walk out of Kroger holding the juice and the milk that I’ve picked up for my own two kids who are waiting for me at home, my brain turns, as it always turns on evenings like this, to riding in the Datsun with my mother on the way to Wilson Avenue. The fridge is always stocked with freeze pops and there is an endless supply of coffee for my mom and my aunt to drink while they sit trying to figure out how to piece the world back together. My baby cousin is lying in his crib drinking his bedtime bottle while Michael Jackson blares from the old turntable in his big brother’s room. Super Mario on the television, trying to get Mario hung up on that step to get infinite one-ups so we can play the game all night. Michael Jackson died today and it made me sadder than I ever thought I would reasonably be. He was a mess and it wasn’t a surprise. A broken up weird and twisted man at the end. But for a handful of summers when he was still young and still brown, Michael Jackson was still alive. And for a very brief time, he lived on Wilson Avenue.