Wednesday, 15 June 1994
This neighborhood is in the Lakewood district, south of Tacoma and east of Steilacoom, which sits on Puget Sound's southeast shore just down from the Tacoma Narrows. The waterfront faces McNeil Island, the former federal penitentiary island now turned back to the State which, being chronically short of prison beds, saw no reason to change its land-use status. It remains a prison, aloof and foreboding. It sits brazenly visible across the water like a neighborhood "Devil's Island" franchise, tended by 8-hour shift changes of lunch-bucketed civil servants carried back and forth on a guarded ferry.
My road-weary Chevy pickup squats under a bug-splattered camper, 600 miles out of Idaho and parked here, facing Diamond Blvd., backed into the evergreen-choked driveway of my stepson-in-law's rented house. I sit in my camper at a fold-down table to write this.
The houses front on narrow streets without sidewalks. Shallow front yards with a fringe of inconsistent grass border the rows of Korean War-era, single-story, hasty-built houses.
Vance and Tanya rent one of these. The eave boards are rotted and paint is peeling in ribbons down their length. A patina of 40 years of neglect and an uneven growth of grey-green moss has crept onto the flimsy siding. Three young women, two babies, and 50-something Vance live here. Two are Vance's daughters, the third is his new wife; one baby is his granddaughter, the other is his infant son.
Anita, the older daughter, has a day job and plays softball and tries to stay away from home when possible. She has the baby girl, is 23, and divorced. Sarah, her sister, is mid-high school age, is attending school infrequently, is bone thin, chain smokes, has dark circles under her eyes, and makes long visits to the bathroom. She is bored to numbness with herself.
Across the street a flat-roofed red house is thumping its windows to pulsing waves of boom-box rap music. A grossly overweight blonde woman and three black men carry household goods to a slightly nicer, blue house next door. Cars have come and gone all afternoon: two women, couples, mixed couples, a car loaded with books and boxes and lamps retrieved from the just-vacated blue house. The mixed couple from the red house is "swapping" occupancies. Vance said their lease expired this month.
Toxic Orange Tights
Charles is a big, middle-aged black man. He lurch-walks around the yard on a stiff left leg as if he's been knee-capped in a gang shooting or a Vietnam fire-fight. He lives with a fat white blonde woman whose drooping breasts and protruding belly hang in overlapping folds, flopping down where her lap should be. Two girls alternate carrying armsful of stuff from their rooms to the blue house. They look 12 or 13 years old. One is white, one is black. The white girl wears wire-rimmed glasses and a grade school expression. The black girl wears toxic orange tights textured with underlying cellulite dimples and ripples of soft thigh flesh, a bulging pudenda, and jiggling buttocks. She wears a coy smile that forbodes a succubus about to spring upon the brothers.
Black boys alternate between tossing a basketball at a plastic rim tacked to the roof's edge, carrying boxes when called, and otherwise cracking wise at other kids cruising by on their bikes.
Vance has no use for these people from the red house. The loud music grates on him. The people coming and going, "playmates," he cracks, irritate his sense of propriety. He mutters a resentful racial slur.
He is thumbing through a new issue of "Hand Gunner" magazine, lingering over photo layouts of heavy-caliber semi-auto weapons. I wonder at this preoccupation with heavy hand-toys, and for a chill instant I link his intense irritation with the "in-your-face" situation across the street. It's best not to dwell on these thoughts.
Vance comments that the red-house people may have a police scanner. He called the cops last week to complain of rowdy party noise. Five minutes before the patrol car arrived, the house went dead and the front door slammed shut. Five minutes after the police left, the door swung open, the music came back up, and the people came out to dance on the lawn.
Since I've been here, the people doing the house-swap haven't glanced in this direction. We're like "invisible" over here.
Vance is a Vietnam vet. He came back wounded, mind and body. He's never talked about Vietnam. I've never asked him. His face recites chapter and verse with its dark, sunken eyes, and its tired flesh cut through with wrinkles like rice-paddy ditches.
He talks of his "return" with soft words. He is proud of his "rehab" from drugs and drinking. He volunteers with a local veteran's group that works to keep other vets from falling back into the insentient hell they've barely escaped. He grieves for those who haven't.
Tanya, Vance's wife, is 32. She simultaneously wears contact lenses and thick glass lenses in plastic frames. It's inconceivable that she isn't legally blind. She struggled through high school, then married her high school boyfriend who dropped out to smoke pot. He became a U.S. Army motorpool sergeant which lasted until he blood-tested positive for marijuana. Discharged, he retreated to Tacoma to work at a string of service station jobs. Tanya, weary of waiting for John to grow up, sued for divorce. She entry-levelled into a subsistence job clerking at a convenience store. Then she landed in bed with 50-something Vance, a persistently charming customer. Vance rewarded Tanya with marriage; Tanya rewarded Vance with an infant son.
Thursday, 16 June 1994
Vance, Tanya and Sarah (Vance's daughter) are heavy smokers. I pity the baby, Lewis. He weighed 7 pounds at birth. Tanya smoked full term. My mother smoked full term. Everyone in my family smoked. I smoked three packs a day before I quit in '82. I went cold turkey. My skin crawled and black drops of nicotine oozed out. My eyeballs and fingernails itched. Deep breathing helped. So did banging my forehead against hard things. Tanya cannot quit smoking. I understand.