Jane & Mr. B, keeping warm
The house my parents rented was painted red and had a front porch and a porch swing, and it was across a dirt road from a barn, its hay loft long empty and stalls forgetful that they had housed anything other than dirt and dried up corn cobs. My cousin Eric and I would doodle for doodlebugs in the barn, climb around in the stalls, hack at the weeds encroaching behind it.
Mom’s bicycle had a kid’s seat behind her own, and we would ride five miles into town to deliver the rent check to Miss Annie, who sat in a darkened apartment with her crocheted blankets and her flower pots hung by macrame hangers. We would also ride to my preschool—a lab school at the local university—and to the public library and Spring Park, which surrounded the library and had swings. What cars we had varied with the whims of my dad. In no particular order: a black pickup with a bad passenger door latch (I fell out once onto the gravel by the roadside; I remember seeing the car still going as I bounced in the dirt), a Toyota Celica Liftback, an International Scout which my dad drove into a ditch with such force the roof slid off (I don’t know how either of us escaped decapitation), some sort of sedan made by the Austin Motor Company, perhaps a Ford Bronco.
The front door of the red house opened onto the living room. My bedroom was through a door to the left. A dining room was straight ahead, and behind it the kitchen. To the left of the dining room was my parents’ bedroom. The bedrooms were joined by a closet. Although I didn’t do it often, I could crawl from one bedroom to the other—probably not half as quiet as I liked to think I was being. Off the kitchen was a hallway or mudroom. Once I saw a barn owl there. It sat on top of the open door, blinking its quiet eyes. The bathroom was in the back corner of the house. More than once in the summer I would step out of the bathtub and onto a wasp.
The house was situated as the road veered south and down from Honey Hill ridge toward Des Ark Bayou, so no part of the yard was level, not even the driveway. My dad took advantage of this by setting his targets on a tree stump north of the house and firing handguns at it from just off the porch. My job was to dig the lead bullets from the stump so they could be melted down, recast as bullets, and fired into the stump again. Later, as the underbrush grew, Eric and I would hack at those weeds too, tunneling through to the neighbor’s yard on the west side.
Mom became a potter in those days and set up a kickwheel in the shed on the south side of the house. I don’t remember her using it, though I’m sure she did, perhaps when I would walk down the hill to Eric’s house. Eric lived about a quarter mile away as the crow flies, but the woods were thick between us, and they were somebody else’s property. We walked around by way of the road instead, carrying things between our moms, sisters. We had a picnic one day. Within view of his house, we stopped to eat a snack, and we drank from the tupperware containers we carried. Eric’s tupperware, however, contained tick poison, and he drank it. Some time later he was green and vomiting in his bathtub, and I remember he stuck out his tongue and I saw a tick walking there. Then he went to the hospital to have his stomach pumped.
We had dogs: King, an older gentleman, and Ponce, after Ponce de Leon. There was a stray with mange that wouldn’t go away; it was done in by one of the handguns. There was a black Labrador-like dog whose name I recall as Daisy. I had gone with dad to visit someone, probably on a classified-ad mission, and the someone’s dog had a litter. “Can I have a puppy,” I asked slyly, innocently, and one came home with us. She grew, and then she started killing my grandfather’s chickens. How many chickens did she kill? How many chances did he give her? The last time I saw her, she had a bird in her mouth.
Other memories of the red house on Honey Hill Ridge: on a day when I missed the bus, I had been running to catch it, and I tripped and fell. While lying in the middle of the road I watched that bus pull up to the corner at the bottom of the hill, turn around, and drive away. Waking up one Easter morning to find my Easter basket had a charm bracelet. Waking up another morning needing to pee so badly I peed on the living room carpet. Watching TV at night through my cracked-open door. Through that same door sticking my tongue out at my dad, who then laid into me all out of proportion to what I had done. Falling asleep one Christmas Eve knowing I was watching Santa ride his sleigh across the moon. One or two lovely Christmas days. One or two incomprehensible fights between my parents.
We left the house sometime after my parents separated.
Our weekly feature comes from this winter’s excavations at the Iowa Memorial Union here at the University of Iowa. As part of the University’s flood recovery efforts, fascinating information about territorial Iowa City was uncovered by archaeologists! These coins and tokens give us insight about early trade and commerce, happening in the present-day area of Hubbard Park. From top to bottom: 1851 three cent piece; 1843 half dime; a token from Belvidere, IL; 1838 half dime; and 1849 California counter.