A WOMBAT ATE MY FATHER

It's funny the things I remember. Crickets, tomato soup, Lincoln Logs. Good things. Red wine with ice cubes,  long silences, knives. Bad things.  I grew up in San Jose, California, at the time a quickly growing city nestled in the heart of the Santa Clara Valley, which used to be called the Valley of the Hearts Delight but was morphing into the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley, land of strip malls, tract housing, and freeways. I can still smell the cherry trees that grew near my house, see the weathered barnyards covered in moss , hear the sound of thousands upon thousands of crickets at night- so loud they'd wake me up in the middle of the night from time to time. My mother used to tell me that when she first came to San Jose, in 1953, a person could tell where they were by the scents of blossoms. Peaches were one area, oranges another. In my first memories, the area we lived in was surrounded by orchards of all kinds- but each year, more and more of them disappeared,  replaced by 7-11s, Dennys, and multi-plex theaters. The  nightly orchestra of crickets shrank into a sad little blues combo, and then vanished altogether, replaced by the distant roar of the new freeway.

Our home was your typical ranch style suburban home that most people my age seem to have grown up in- three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a dining room, a living room, and kitchen connected to a garage.  Our particular neighborhood was Strawberry Park. I went to Strawberry Park Elementary, bought my comic books at Strawberry Park Drug Store, walked down Strawberry Park Drive to get to school. The weird thing was, there weren't a lot of strawberries. Just houses, vacant lots, the occasional church, and what was left of the orchards. To the west were the Santa Cruz mountains, dark blue and full of secrets. to the east was Mount Hamilton- gold and dry and covered with patches of Oak, giving the the appearance of a great chocolate chip cookie. Beyond the valley was the real world, which as far as I could tell from tv was full of hippies and bell bottom jeans and Felix and Oscar and Hawkeye, and the Zodiac killer, and Viet Nam, and some place called OPEC, and Jacques Costeau. I'd made a few forays into the real world- once to Alaska on a cruise with my mother and father shortly before they divorced, once to Disneyland with my father just after the divorce, and several times to Pacific Grove where my Aunt Alice lived. But for the most part, life was Strawberry Park.

I shared a room with my older brother Jerry, and Mom let us decorate it as we saw fit, in order to help stimulate our creativity. We had a dark green ceiling, wood paneling on the walls, and a multi-colored striped shag carpet that sort of looked like some ogre had eaten a couple of boxes of crayons and then thrown up.  On the wall was a muskrat skin we had gotten in Alaska, an up-turned horseshoe over our door for good luck, a poster of a tiger, and also a poster of King Kong. We had bunk beds, and I got to sleep on the top bunk. I don't know if this is because I whined about it, or if Jerry just wanted to bottom bunk. As the youngest, I often got things by using my pest skills, which were advanced for my age.

Every night, after the lights had been turned off and Mom said good night, Jerry would ask me if I wanted to hear a story. We all loved stories in our family. Mom was a former school teacher, our father a frustrated writer- and they were both full of stories and nursery rhymes. Whenever we drove anywhere, we'd read out loud. I remember very clearly hearing my sister Heather read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe one summer over the course of several drives back and forth to Aunt Alice's. So, every night, lights out, house quiet, Jerry would call up: "Want to hear a story?" He didn't really have to ask, because the answer was always yes. It was just the ritual, and that was that. He would ask, I would say yes, then he would ask what kind of story, and I would always request a scary one. He would say no, I'd get to scared and cry to Mom, I'd swear I wouldn't- and after going back and forth, he'd tell me a scary story. And what stories he'd tell- always original, always somehow incorporating our lives. Blue zombies who lived in our closet, rattle snakes at the foot of the bed- there was even one that had the Creature from the Black Lagoon coming out of our fish tank. Usually, I would get scared, and then he'd switch a story about nothing all that exciting, like a boy floating down a river in a raft or walking to school or something, and I'd drift off to sleep.

My life seemed full of dreams and magic, but by the summer after third grade, things started to change. Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny had all gone the way of the dodo for the reasons they always do. But there were starker changes in our suburban home in Strawberry Park. New monsters, not quite so fantastic but much more real, had begun to arrive.



My father left my mother, and my brother and sister and I, when I was four. He had always been obsessed with Alaska- and had decided to go live there. My siblings and I always hoped he'd come back someday to see us- but any hope of that ever happening diminished in direct proportion to the number of letters he sent us. When he first left, there were letters practically every week, full of stories about Melvin the Great, his made up version of himself who went on madcap adventures with his much smarter side-kicks Hairy, Feather, and Belly. Melvin traveled around in a throne that sat on top of a Volkswagen Bug. He always wore a crown, had a bottle of magic pep potion in his glove box that gave him super powers, and was constantly fighting the evil Wombats. Each letter with a Melvin the Great story was illustrated by my father, and I treasured them. I'd read them over and over, never tiring of the stories. We all checked the mail-box a lot in those days. But as time wore on, the letters came less frequently, from weekly to monthly to not at all.  Mom explained to us that Daddy Jay, which is what we called him, had stopped paying something called Alimonyandchildsupport, and we probably wouldn't see him much anymore. By fourth grade, all letters from my father had joined Santa in oblivion. We assumed the Melvin had been eaten by a Wombat.

To be continued...

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