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.