Sometime in the 1970s before my father became a voluntary mute, before my mother started going to the nude beach and growing marijuana, before my sister, Becca, was anorexic and before my brother, Josh, created a second home for himself on a platform three-stories high up a eucalyptus tree, we were a contained, orderly little family. I was six, quiet, and afraid of chaos and loud noises when Becca became friends with Alice Richter who lived in what was then the wildest house in the neighborhood.

Alice Richter, one of five kids, was Becca’s age, nine, but about a foot taller with white hair, eyebrows and lashes. She had hipbones that jutted out like boomerangs from below her flat belly. Her mother reminded me of Lucille Ball with her curly “done” hair and a voice that sounded like it had been born off the tip of a cigarette, which it had in fact. However, unlike my mother who suckled her cigarettes with a cup of coffee, Mrs. Richter puffed her two packs while sipping from a plaid, wool-lined canteen that hung on a shoulder strap, and which she carried with her continuously. Like the other women in the neighborhood, Mrs. Richter stayed home, cleaned her house and did laundry. So the “mess” in the Richter house was psychological—like a perfectly polished labyrinth set up for an anxious mouse.

When it was time for my sister to come home for dinner, it was up to me to summon her. The Richter phone was always busy when I called. I would hang up the yellow wall receiver, pick it up once more and redial over and over again while sitting on a stool at the counter in the family room looking into the kitchen at my mother cooking dinner. Eventually my mother would tire of my efforts and insist that I run down to their house, saying something like, “For crissakes! They’re not going to kill you! You’ll survive, go get her!”

I’d hop off the stool and often pick up Josh, if he was playing nearby on the family room floor. He liked to grasp onto me face-forward as I carried him toward the front door with all intentions of bringing him with me—a turtle shell against my vulnerable belly. But more often than not, Josh squirmed out of my arms and ran off before I could get him outside.

There were Five Stages of Terror at the Richter house. Stage One was the garage where the oldest son, Roger, hung out with his friends. Roger worked at an auto body shop painting mod designs on hot rod cars: sunsets, unicorns, blond ladies in red bathing suits. The garage door was always open, a car or two parked inside. Roger and his friends, who were the height of my father, or larger, huddled near the coffin-sized freezer in the back of the garage, drinking beer and smoking what I, at six-years old, could identify as marijuana (my mother’s pot habit, which at the time was only occasional, had been clearly explained to me so I that I would know to keep it a secret).

“Who you looking for little girl?” someone would invariably shout, and whatever I answered (“my sister” or “Becca”) they pretended not to hear for someone would walk out of the garage to interrogate me, asking questions like, “You looking for beer? You want a smoke?”

Once I’d made it past the garage, I’d knock on the front door that no one opened. (Honestly, there never was a day when I knocked and the door was opened.) I could hear top-forty radio playing inside, I could hear Mrs. Richter whistling so perfectly and purely that she could have done the opening tune for The Andy Griffith Show. I could hear the fluffy, dust ball-looking dog, Frank, yipping. And there, on the porch, I was faced with the Second Stage of Terror: the decision of how to proceed. Should I just open the door and go in, or go back to the garage and ask Roger if I could go in through the garage door? On the odd occasion that the front door was locked, I had to face the boys in the garage again. But usually the front door was unlocked, so I would eventually open it, stick my head in, and then step inside.

The yapping dog’s noise would build to a frantic crescendo. I was not afraid of dogs, but this one made enough racket that I didn’t bend down to pet it or do anything else that might calm his hysteria. I just waited for someone to come see what all the ruckus was about and find me.

If it was the youngest of the three brothers, Thad, who found me, he would look at me, say nothing, then walk away. If it was the middle of the three brothers, Marcus, or if it was Marcus and Thad together, the Third Stage of Terror, The Taunt, would begin.

The Taunt was something I had never encountered before and it was something that was, during my childhood in California, unique to the Richter household. Marcus Richter was, I believe, the composer of the taunt and the one who seemed to take the most joy in doing it. With a clear, high-pitched voice, a blond shaved head that looked like velvet, and sharp blue eyes, Marcus would lean in toward me, his shoulders weaving like a boxer’s, as he screeched, “Hee hee Jessica. Heeeee Heeee Jessica. Heeeeeee Heeeee. . . .” The Hee part of the taunt would grow louder and more maniacal the longer Marcus went on. He’d circle me, his lean, snaky body bending and twisting as he chanted, “Heeeeeee heeee Jessica . . . .” Eventually the taunt would grow to a rhythmical “Hee hee, ho ho, hi hi, hee hee, ho ho hi hi . . . .” And if that went on long enough it merged into a song that was shouted in my face and went like this, “Viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO, viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO . . . .” The coda was the most musical part of The Taunt. Marcus often got down on his knees and looked up at me as if he were pleading while he sang, “Cry for you, I’m going to cry cry cry for you, I’m going to cry for you . . . . ” When Thad joined in he was just another voice, as he never became fully immersed in the choreography the way Marcus did. According to Becca, this chanting taunt went on all day long, indiscriminately, to anyone who entered the house and it didn’t bother her in the least. (I must point out here that Marcus Richter grew up to be a Hari Krishna. Yes, a chanting Hari Krishna.)

If Marcus or Thad were not the ones to find me on the entrance hall landing, then it was usually Mrs. Richter. She spoke so rapidly, I never quite understood what she said and was always unsure if she was even speaking to me. She’d touch my elbow at some point and direct me to sit on the blue wing chair besides Mr. Richter in his blue wing chair while someone fetched Becca. Mr. Richter read the newspaper without speaking or looking at me, thus creating Terror Number Four as I uncomfortably tried to figure out where to look, or how to sit, while I waited for my sister to appear. And since Mrs. Richter usually sent Marcus or Thad Richter upstairs to get Becca and they never seemed to follow her orders, if often seemed as if I had to endure the Fourth Stage of Terror for as long as twenty minutes until Mrs. Richter entered the room again to refill Mr. Richter’s glass and was reminded that I was there waiting. Of course it always occurred to me during this waiting period that terrors two through four could be avoided if Mr. Richter, whose chair faced the front door, simply got up, opened the door when I knocked, then walked upstairs and retrieved my sister, or bellowed from the bottom of the stairs (the way my own father would) for her to come down immediately.

The Fifth Stage of Terror occurred when I had had enough of either waiting in the blue wing chair, or when I had gathered up the courage to walk away from Marcus in the middle of The Taunt (in which case the Fifth Stage of Terror would be the Fourth as we’d skip the other Fourth Stage of Terror: sitting in the living room with Mr. Richter) and took the unnerving walk upstairs to find Becca on my own.

Alice Richter’s bedroom was the last room down a long a hallway of Richter children bedrooms. Just before her room was her sister Mary Jane’s room. Mary Jane was a year younger than I and had the energy and spastic movements of the Richter boys. She was as skinny as a rope, as blond as the sun, with big gaping teeth that were too big for her face. If she spotted me, she would run and leap on top of me like a crazed tree frog, her stringy arms and legs all over my body. Once, she even bit me on the shoulder to try and convince me to stay and play with her. She was feral in a way that Josh wasn’t as there didn’t seem to be even a glint of prudence behind her wild blue eyes. (By the time we were teenagers Mary Jane was freakishly beautiful with her sun-browned skin and silky white hair. But people found her disturbing as she seemed to have an old person’s aphasia and could never find the words for what she wanted to say, often grunting and using hand signals for a simple sentence like, “I burned my arm on the iron.” By this time I had a great affection for her and would often speak for her at parties and dances at school.)

Once I had fended Mary Jane off my back I would run to Alice Richter’s room where the suspender-wearing James Taylor poster covered the door. I’d knock and then open the door it if it wasn’t opened for me within seconds.

“Becca,” I’d say, my voice in line with my pumping heart, “Mom said you have to come home for dinner NOW.” I’d turn and rush down the hall, past Mary Jane leapfrogging off the end of her bed, down the stairs, past Mr. Richter in his chair, past the sounds of Mrs. Richter in the kitchen and the rumbling sounds of Thad and Marcus riding a bare mattress down the rumpus room steps, out the door, and past the men-sized boys drinking beer and smoking pot in the garage and up the street to our cul de sac where everything seemed peaceful, calm, orderly.

When I entered our house with my mother quietly cooking dinner, a camel cigarette bobbing around her mouth, the sunlight streaming in and highlighting the mown-grass pattern in the green shag family room carpet, the sliding glass door looking out to the perfectly patterned, precisely geometric lemon orchard, I felt so happy that this was my family, this was my life. I was not a Richter child.

Of course I had no idea how quickly things would soon change in my own house.

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JESSICA ANYA BLAU's third novel, THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER, was selected as a Summer Read on NPR's All Things Considered, CNN's Book Chat, and Oprah's Book Club. She is also the author of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, and THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES. For more information go to www.jessicaanyablau.com.

58 responses to “Hee Hee Ho Ho Hi Hi”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    God, I LOVE your pieces, Jessica!!
    I hang off every word, every sentence just waiting to know what’s coming next. Such perfectly told stories, full of little treasures hidden around every corner.
    I’m still trying to come to terms with ‘The Taunt’ – Man, that Marcus was one twisted little fella.
    I think I’m going to dream about this tonight!!!

  2. Thank YOU Zara!

    It was scary down there! The older I got, the more I could take it, but I was always a bit terrified. My sister, on the other hand, has always been drawn to chaos, danger, drama. For a while she was an undercover narcotics cop.

  3. What a gauntlet for a 6 year-old. You were a tough one. I probably would have told my mom I couldn’t find Becca and let her take the heat!

    I’m new and playing catch-up. Love your descriptions — can’t wait to go back and read more of your stuff!

    • Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

      Jessica Anya,

      It’s really too bad that six is too young to really learn how to lie well enough to be believed. You could have gone outside for a while and disappeared from sight. Then you could have come back, say, a half hour later and tell your mom that Becca wasn’t there. That they didn’t know where she was. You could have left her there living with the toe-headed crazy chanting family and your family would have been that much less complicated.

      But then, you were a regular six year old. You had to do what you were told.

      I can’t wait to hear more!!!!!

      • Jessica Blau says:

        Hey Irene! I just replied to Lauren but it posted below this, egads! YEs, I was OBEDIENT! Still am. Such a problem for me. How is that crazy, cold, plaguing Passover-like weather in Miami Beach? Any better since your post?

        • Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

          Jessica,

          It is STILL getting in the thirties at night!!! We are seriously wearing so many layers and hats and gloves and scarves IN THE HOUSE! I’m thinking of putting an X in my blood on the front door, but it would take so much and I can’t let my ferritin level drop or my RLS/PLMD gets way worse.

          I was sort of always devious. When I was really little I was obedient, but it didn’t do me any good, so I learned to work the family system at a young age.

          You really should put your family stories in a book. I would buy one for me and one for all my friends!

  4. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh, you ARE new here and I didn’t even WELCOME you! Welcome! I look forward to more of your posts!

    Thanks for reading this. Yes, I should have told her I couldn’t find Becca but I was ridiculously obedient and good. Until about fifteen. And then I was still MOSTLY obedient and good.

    • i am a total tnb novice — this is only my second piece! i worried a lot about putting it up. in a way, i think it might be sort of complementary to yours. are you a middle child? we sound WAY too much alike in the “good girl” syndrome! thank you for the kind welcome — i am excited to check out your archives!

  5. Jessica Blau says:

    Your post is fabulous and funny and I’m so glad you put it up!

    YES a middle child. We’ll have to hear about your family and some of this middle child ridiculousness soon!

    AND, I lived in Oakland for a while. Bay Area for eight years, Oakland about half of them. Lucky you, being in California. I’m in Baltimore now where it is even colder than San Francisco!

    • oops, didn’t even see this one! i had a pretty strong feeling on the middle child thing!! i used to be really good at guessing birth order — my little party trick (i could even guess older brother, younger sister, etc.) but there are too many types of families now (step-brother 10 years younger …) — it’s ruined my party trick!

      we will definitely have to talk more about birth order and oakland! i love it here! love md/dc, too, and should move there for job purposes (gov. relations) but i’m firmly planted here!

      i really did love this piece and would love to see more! 🙂

  6. Greg Olear says:

    My son just turned five, and I know he’ll be a year older next Christmas, but I don’t know if I’d even let him go down to the swings by himself, let alone down the street and into a neighbor’s house. Six is young. Ye gads, you poor dear.

    Marcus Richter totally liked you. You don’t chant to someone that ardently unless you like them. (Or unless you’re in the airport and you want to convert them to your religion. Oh, wait…)

    Great piece, as always.

    G

  7. Jessica Blau says:

    You know, I have to admit a major ERROR in this post. I was seven-years old. I saw that I had written six and at some point SAVED the change, but maybe I posted an older draft or something. I guess I could go back and edit and change to seven but . . . you know, it’s already up, Irene and Laura already commented on the six thing, yadda yadda!

    BUT, yes, we did everything at that age, six, seven, etc. Didn’t you? I think we as parents (you, me, etc.) are the first generation that doesn’t let their kids run free. As a kid my brother, sister and I rode our bikes to the beach, swam unsupervised, got caught in riptides, waited for some grown person on the beach to realize we were caught and swim out and save us (happened to me TWICE), took the bus downtown, etc.

    If it had been anyone but Marcus Richter there would have been the possibility of liking me. But, truly, Marcus did not like me and just tormented me. He tormented everyone who came near the house. And I’m not sure I was quite the kind of girl boys liked back then: freckle-face, doughy, flat hair, quiet. Around the time I thought maybe I was getting cute, Paul B. announced, “Jessica would be cute if her nose weren’t so big.” So there you have it.

    Thanks for reading!

    P.S. Any luck on the bouncy-castle undies and Uggs lovefest?

    • Greg Olear says:

      Seven changes everything! Now I’m surprised you didn’t toke up with Roger.

      Just kidding.

      It’s a different era now, but that seems to be changing with this free range parenting stuff. It gives you a whole new perspective when your kids are at an age that you can actually remember being. When I was seven, I could have handled the Richters — but I wouldn’t have liked it.

      I’m sure you’re being modest about the cute stuff, but you’re probably right about Marcus Richter. His name even sounds like Hannibal Lecter.

      No word yet on the undies & Uggs — let’s call it the Double U — but it may take awhile to filter down. Brangelina don’t sit around Googling themselves, because there’d be way too many hits, but they might employ staffs who do. So we’ll see…

  8. jmblaine says:

    You my dear
    have a way with words
    y’know.

    Also:
    Best Title.

  9. Jessica Blau says:

    Ah, thanks!

    So glad you like the title, too!

  10. I wish, I wish, I wish I could have grown up in your neighbourhood, Jessica.

    Except I probably would have dodged Marcus.

    There’s a story a friend of mine used to have about his aunt (by marriage), whose dad, one day when she was about 17, just upped and moved into the attic and didn’t come out again. We never questioned the toilet facilities in place up there, but the strange thing was that the aunt was grounded until she was 21.

    But if he never left the attic, how on earth could he enforce such a thing?

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Oh no, I hope she wasn’t grounded up in the attic WITH him! Creepy, no? Our neighbourhood (to borrow your sophisticated spelling) had plenty of oddities. There was one man who ran naked down the Santa Barbara Airport runway (the airport is about the size of your living room) and then had electric shock therapy. He was hugely successful (double degrees from Stanford) and came from electroshock, planted himself in a chair and never got up or spoke again. The family just operated around him, like one of those J. Seward Johnson sculptures.

      And speaking of attics, when my grandfather was a kid his “aunt” Vesta lived with the family (my mother deduced she was his father’s mistress/whore). Eventually she became looney (syphilis, late stages?) and she’d stand at the attic window, lift up her skirts (skirts were plural then) and flash her pudenda (grandfather’s word) to the world below. When they moved, they locked her in the attic, gave a key to the neighbor and bolted without her. Can you imagine buying a new house, exploring all the new rooms and finding some looney, pudenda-flashing old woman in your attic?

      • Phat B says:

        Duuuuuude! My grandma’s all went crazy, but luckily never got into nudity. I can’t imagine what type of scar that leaves on the brain, seeing an old lady’s pudenda pressed up against the glass. Yeeeesh. I’m gonna take a shower.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          I think that once it’s being called a pudenda, it isn’t any fun to look at. Enjoy your shower!

        • “I think that once it’s being called a pudenda, it isn’t any fun to look at”

          Snort.

          Here’s the truly bizarre thing – the girl had the run of the house; she could go where she pleased. The dad did not leave the attic. So his forms of punishment, basically, came down to raising his voice.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Maybe he stomped on the floor, like my mother did when she wanted my brother to stop bouncing the ball in the house. It went something like this: STOMP STOMP STOMP STOMP, then, “QUIT BOUNCING THAT GODDAMNED BALL IN THE HOUSE!”

          By the way, if she was downstairs and my brother was upstairs bouncing a ball, she’d take a broom and knock the stick end on the ceiling underneath the room he was in.

          Those trans-floor stomp/whacks can be pretty intimidating!

  11. Marni Grossman says:

    “a voice that sounded like it had been born off the tip of a cigarette”- This is why you’re a writer. Such. Good. Stuff.

    (As always.)

  12. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh Marni, you are too kind!

    How are you? Have you posted lately? I’m going to go look now!

  13. Jessica, I swear we lived in the same exact neighborhood separated by coasts! Loved this! How is everything coming along for your next book?

  14. Jessica Blau says:

    Hey Robin,
    The past week must have been very exciting for YOU with your new book!

    (http://www.amazon.com/Summer-We-Fell-Apart-Novel/dp/0061782165/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1263218040&sr=8-1)

    My next book (Drinking Closer to Home) is done (my editor is going over it now and I should have her notes back in about a month). It comes out February 2011. Seems far away–I’m trying to be patient!

  15. Hi Jessica:

    I second Blaine. Great piece, great title. T’was a pleasure to read.

  16. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks Rich. Tis always a pleasure to hear from you and see your handsome hat-wearing picture on my posts!

  17. Mary says:

    Jesus, it’s terrifying. Completely terrifying. Fantastic, too, of course. So, you became friends with Mary Jane? She sounds interesting. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  18. Jessica Blau says:

    We weren’t exactly friends it was more that I had some cousin-like feelings toward her and felt that I should look out for her. My sister essentially became a part of that household so in a sense they were a part of our family for years (even though our parents NEVER spoke!).

  19. Angela Tung says:

    “the five stages of terror at the richter house.” awesome.

    i love this piece, and can’t wait to read more.

  20. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks Angela!

    Sadly, I’m usually able to find five stages of terror in everything I encounter. My rule in life is that I must do what I’m afraid of–otherwise I’d never leave the house!

  21. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    You know, Jessica Anya, I’m really glad that Marcus found a place where he could fit in. It really did seem as though he was headed for the looney bin. People may think it’s weird to be a Hari Krishna, but it’s perfect for him.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Yes, actually, ALL the kids turned out to be pretty cool, interesting people with nice, good lives. The parents died and the kids scattered hither and yon, but my sister’s still in touch.

  22. How is you make total chaos and mania so beautiful, Jessica?

    You we’re a very brave child, I may have peed myself had I walked into that as a child, or now, as an adult.

  23. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks Megan!

    You know I never peed myself. But I did vomit and pass out! (Not fetching my sister, in other terrifying situations.)

    Still can’t get over how gorgeous your pin-up looking photo is!

  24. Richard Cox says:

    Mary Jane sounds interesting, even surreal. You sure that isn’t a code name? 😉

    Your writing always rocks.

  25. Jessica Blau says:

    Yes, you’re very observant! They are ALL code names–each somehow related to the original name, but code nonetheless. Although there’s nothing too horrible revealed about any of them here (perhaps a bit of implied lunacy, no?), I never know how people will feel about MY point of view of THEM.

    I’m certain that no Richter has ever read anything I’ve written or even knows that I write–I’m rolling on Karma here.

    Thanks for reading this!

  26. D.R. Haney says:

    I knew many Richter families as a child, though fleetingly. We moved a lot.

    A fine and very entertaining read as always, Jessica.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Thanks Duke! Yeah those Richter families are everywhere aren’t they? Although maybe not in Asia or Africa. Europe for sure.

  27. Erika Rae says:

    Jessica, your posts are divine. By the time you got to Mary Jane, I was cracking up, out loud and proud.

    I would NEVER have been allowed at a family’s house like the Richter’s growing up. My parents would have thought they were secret tools of the devil just waiting to turn their daughter(s) into Lucifer’s handmaidens. Shoot. All that drinkin’ and smokin’. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have been allowed at your house either.

    Sometimes I think I grew up on the set of Footloose.

  28. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh Erika, you definitely wouldn’t have been allowed to my house. If your mother had come to the door to meet my mother, my mother would have shouted down the stairs that she was too busy to meet anyone. My father would have chatted, if he were home. But Jewishness oozes out of him, and there was a muzuzzah on the door jamb, so maybe that would have caused your mum to pull you away from us.

    The thing about my parents is they never checked anyone out. They didn’t know what was going on in other people houses, and when we told them about other people’s houses they just had a good laugh!

  29. Ducky says:

    Great piece, Jessica. Love reading your work.

  30. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks for reading Ducky! x!

  31. Darryl Salach says:

    Would this be an excerpt from your forthcoming novel, Jessica? It’s another rockin’ story. Umm..I’m still patiently waiting, just so you know.lol

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Hey Darryl,
      Thanks for checking in here! I DO DO DO want to send you something for The Toronto Quarterly! Will lie in bed tonight and figure out which chapter I can pull from the new novel. Hopefully you’ll like it!

  32. Gloria says:

    How awesome to stumble upon this post. I was going to lie on my couch and read books all day right after I “checked TNB really quickly.” Two and a half hours later, I’m still hunched over the keyboard, and I’m ready to walk away. I’m so glad I stuck around for just one more. Now I have to read your book.

  33. Jessica Blau says:

    I’m SO glad you stuck around for one more!
    Thanks for reading Gloria.
    (By the way, your plan of lying on the couch and reading books all day sounds WONDERFUL. Lucky you!)

  34. Elizabeth Beckwith says:

    I love your work so much! This piece was fantastic. I finished “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties” on my plane ride last night and I cannot even tell you how much I loved it. I’ve already enthusiastically recommended it to several friends! Can’t wait for your next book. xo

  35. Jessica Blau says:

    Wow. THanks so much Elizabeth! I hope the flight was okay.
    Great big xxxxs to you!

  36. Kati says:

    I love reading your pieces and of course I always try to figure out who you are talking about. I think I recognize the family but not 100% sure. Your writing is just like I remember you – bright, quick, funny, full of imagery and a little schizy (and I mean that in such a complimentary way!)

  37. Schizy?! (My husband would probably agree!)

    Yes, I changed the names. They’re all good people and they were a nice, although wild, family.

    Thanks for reading.

    x!

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