Ghosts

By Robin Antalek

Essay

My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.

I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.

They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.

When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.

We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.

As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.

I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.

As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.

One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.

I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.

We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.

 

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23 Comments »

Comment by Irene Zion
2009-10-20 08:58:28

Robin,
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Good job.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:45:57

Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!

Comment by Matt
2009-10-20 09:32:18

Wow.

’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:03

hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-20 10:33:01

This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.

As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:54

Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-20 10:36:34

God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:48:52

What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..

Comment by jmblaine
2009-10-20 10:54:28

A professor once told me that good writers
describe well
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?

ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
yet

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:51:22

My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-20 13:36:09

Wow, good piece!

Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.

Sort of like childhood, I guess.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:52:32

Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-21 04:48:08

You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.

When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.

“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:51:33

Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-24 06:17:56

Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Autumn
2009-10-21 06:57:16

Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.

I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:56:02

When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….

Comment by LitPark
2009-10-21 10:23:41

Haunting, and beautifully told.

Comment by Greg Olear
2009-10-21 14:18:18

I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:52:39

Greg and Susan… thanks so much….

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-21 19:57:49

Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 10:01:59

You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-10-25 18:56:42

Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.







My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.

It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.

G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.

Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.

He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.

I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.

She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.

“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”

My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.

“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”

Mine.

The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.

G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.

My mother said nothing.

When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.

I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a  freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.

And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.

“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.

Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.

I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.

Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.

My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.


Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.

I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.

I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.

And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.

But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.