An egg was tossed high in the air, where it floated. The incredible, edible egg! the TV-voice sang. My mom stepped out of the kitchen for a minute. I threw an egg that sat on our counter; it splattered on the dog-chewed carpet.
In my brothers’ bedroom, my stepsiblings and I would spin a globe model of the earth then leap and fall around the room staggeringly, as if time was racing forward too fast for us to gain our balance.
When I was around 8, one of our neighbors kidnapped me. For however long, he’d tied me up and threatened me with a knife, I later said.
Once, my youngest brother and I both saw a troll, a squat, leathery-brown figure, female, wearing a police outfit with a shiny badge, standing in the crawlspace in my bedroom. I banged the door shut so fast its sharp, metal corner cut my forehead.
The crawlspaces were closets with ceilings so low you could only crawl in them. They ran from my own to my brothers’ room, across the hall over the stairwell. We made forts out of beach towels and pillows and romped in them. Sometimes one of the crawlspace doors swung open on its own, we swore.
At 43, I haven’t told this story to anyone besides my parents. Not to a therapist. Not even to my ex-husband.
After her divorce from my stepfather, after my own divorce, my mom moved to Easton, across the Delaware from New Jersey. I live far from her in New Orleans, by another river, just me and my 11-year-old daughter.
Less than 3 square miles in size, Fords was a blue-collar town during my childhood, crisscrossed by the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s about 15 minutes from the ocean, the industrialized, polluted Atlantic coast; to go to a real beach, you’d have to drive further south to Sandy Hook. In the 1980s—my family would move 30 minutes southwest, to a street of stately Victorians, when I started high school—the houses in Fords looked crammed close together, with little lawns.
Ours was a small Cape Cod with cedar shingling. My bedroom had a dormer window that made a cozy alcove around my bed and overlooked our front yard, in the middle of which one of our squat, chubby Christmas trees had been planted by my stepfather.
Prone to flooding, our sunken backyard was bordered with railroad ties, the grass full of dog poops and crabapples in states of decay.
The Christmas tree never grew tall until long after we’d moved away.
I roamed through the neighborhood alone, a pattern of pink and lavender flowers on my bike’s seat, streamers flaring from the handlebars. Down Lawrence Street, where Kevin Mansfield and his sisters lived—he was lowkey my boyfriend—I joined games of kickball and wiffleball.
Fords was a place where you knew who was around.
I liked to explore the dead end on my street, Koyen. On my way there, I walked past Donna’s house. Around my age, Donna had a thick, angry scar that started on her throat and trailed down inside her shirt.
Where the pavement ended, there was a cyclone fence with a ragged hole in it. I squeezed through to the top of a wild, grassy hill.
Thoughts about the kidnapping surfaced recently, triggering deep, embarrassed fucked-up confusion, after many years of it never crossing my mind.
I phoned my mom, expecting her to clear things up. What exact story did I tell her? What reaction did she and my stepdad have? Was the neighbor informed about my accusation; did he respond? Were other neighborhood parents?
What about my dad, two hours south in Moorestown? I saw him every few months, when he’d take me to the Franklin Institute and Bob’s Big Boy, at highway rest stops.
But she didn’t remember how old I had been when it happened, my first question; or anything else.
Did it really happen?? she asked.
As a child reader, I plunged into foreign worlds that became my own, deeply private places. When I turned the last page, it was as if someone I loved had died.
My earliest reading, after an intense Mother Goose phase, was of old European folk tales and mythology. Blodeuwedd, Vasilisa the Beautiful. A little older, I devoured the horror genre: Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz. I found something of that early magical world in them, a place of alluring, violent irrationality.
I read the same books, and watched the same movies with my siblings, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, over and over.
I was roller skating with my best friend Tracy Hess one afternoon, as we often did. She lived at one end of my street down a little hill, on the corner of Liberty Street which led out to the Parkway entrance. My house was at the top of the slope. Tracy skated home for some reason, I later told my mom and stepdad. I stayed outside playing.
He lived 3 houses from ours toward the dead end, in the left side of a duplex painted a sickly greenish color, with darker green shutters that didn’t close.
None of the shutters on our street did, they were fixed to the outside walls on either side of each window and looked, to me, like candy-colored buttons, from a distance.
I don’t know his name.
Or if he had a family.
I can only “see”—remember, imagine—him in his driveway, maybe taking the trash out like the other men did on our block, the fathers who were always outside caring for those public spaces.
His complexion is olive, like my Italian skin, with mysterious round black marks peppered across his cheeks, moles or scars.
When I see him, my heart begins racing.
Tracy’s mom, Prudence, disliked me, but her father was very nice and did anything her mom asked. I spent a lot of my childhood in their basement rec room and, 35 years later, can still sense its layout. There was a bar with no liquor bottles on it covered in board games, Barbies, and other toys we freely perused. We compared our sticker collections, shiny, fuzzy, scratch-n-sniff ones we pinned down beneath clear plastic sleeves in photo albums. Tracy had more than I did, and I was envious. Our favorite sticker smelled like a root beer float.
Some were unpleasant, black licorice- or puke-scented.
A low wall separated the playroom from the laundry room; it formed a shelf, a little meditative area for the eyes to rest on. On the shelf there was a statuette of a fatherly sea captain’s head, just the head, in rugged profile. He wore a yellow rain slicker—you could see the hat, the collar of the coat—and a wise gray beard, with a pipe poking out of his mouth.
In “The Goose Girl” by the Brothers Grimm, the severed head of her beloved horse talks, consolingly, to a princess far from home. The head is nailed to a gate she walks under on the way to or from tending geese. She’s been forced by her maid to swap identities and become a servant, a “goose girl.”
Made to swear, at knifepoint, that she won’t tell her secret to any living being, the princess finally crawls into an iron stove and pours out her story there.
At some point, I remember telling my parents I’d lied about the neighbor, made the whole story up. The details all came from books.
Falada, Falada, thou art dead, and all the joy in my life has fled.
Alas, alas, if your mother knew, the horse head answers, her loving heart would break in two.
A hand is clamped over my mouth, drags me backwards on my roller skates—
Panic, queasiness, stuttering pulse, and, horribly, sexual arousal.
After this image passes, in my mind, I don’t see or feel anything.
Outside the broken fence at the dead end, I would stand at the top of a hill; it seemed like a very tall hill, then. I gazed down at the off-ramp snaking from the Parkway, where cars whizzed past. Damp, vast, tickly grasses and weeds engulfed my legs. I imagined that they flowed out endlessly, a silent sea, as they may have a long time ago.
Liz Green is completing a PhD in creative writing at UL Lafayette where she received the Dr. James H. Wilson / Paul T. Nolan Creative Writing Award in Drama and is a member of The Milena Theatre Group. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, and is a licensed mental health therapist (LPC). Liz’s work has appeared in journals such as Forklift, Ohio; anderbo.com; H_NGM_N; The Hunger; and Fourth Genre.