A Dreamer of the Golden Dream
On evenings like this, when the breeze spreads upward and lifts the hood of my jacket off my eyes, when the air holds the crisp promise of spring just above my head, with the blue dusk slowly creeping upon me, I think of all the paths open to me–all of the possibilities of my life, all of the places I will go.
For most of my life, I wanted nothing more than to move to California. My parents moved to Delaware before my older sister Hannah was born, from California by way of Mexico, and we, not just them but the whole family, never seemed to fit in. Everyone else in Delaware had loads of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and we had no one, just one great aunt a few hours away in Maryland.
My parents would tell us stories about California, and it seemed like the Promised Land. Everything was better in California: the people were friendlier, the food tastier, the water warmer, the sky bluer.
“You knew the surf was up when the boys would show up at school each morning with their hair sticking up,” my mom would reminisce. She was 22 the first time she saw snow, she told me once when we were stuck at home in a blizzard. My dad would talk of riding his bike around the neighborhood with his brother to go buy ice cream. They didn’t have to work just to make sure the family had enough to eat.
With each story, they shaped California for me. Like a castle in the sand, it changed, eroded, was rebuilt in new ways when waves of memory surged and receded. I tried to fix it in my mind, but I knew the only way to make it real would be to see it for myself.
When I was six, Chelsea ran away from home. She was 17. Hannah, 12, soon followed. They would leave for days, weeks, months at a time. They stayed with friends and, when their welcome wore out, crashed on the couches of strangers. Anything to get away. But inevitably they came back, needing money or a place to stay. Then the fights with my parents only worsened.
I weighed my options, too. I had friends I could stay with for a few weeks, but nothing permanent. I was dead set on making my way to the great California, but, I decided, at my age I would not get very far. I would need to be a little older, and I would indisputably need more money. I could not fail.
So I starting working more with dad. It wasn’t just the money; going to work with him was the only way to spend time with my father. By the age of 10, I could stack tires in intricate rows above my head or remove nails and plug the holes with glue and rubber. I’d do my dad’s accounting and arrange his grimy receipts in the old metal desk where he sat.
I worked hard–harder than I’ve ever worked at any other job. I earned $10 a week for twenty-five hours of work. It may not seem like a lot, but money was always tight in my house, and it was a small fortune to me. After all, money meant mobility.
I began saving scrupulously, at first in my metallic piggy bank. Every Sunday, which was payday, I would pull out all the cash I had collected, and I would count how rich I was. I would organize the bills, first according to the letter printed on the front, and then according to their serial numbers. Then I would fold everything back up inside the pig and hide it behind a drawer in my desk; I would have liked a false back, but I had to be realistic.
I did all of this with great secrecy. If any of my siblings—especially Hannah—found my savings, it would all be lost. And my parents would only blame me for not hiding it well enough.
People who know me now don’t think of me as thrifty. I don’t like money to be an obstacle. Now, I get what I want when I want it, because, I rationalize, I’ve worked hard and I always deserve it. But back then–back before I knew better–I was different. Back then, I hated spending a single dollar, even if it was on something I needed, like new clothes or shampoo.
Eventually, my little pig was stuffed, and I was still saving. By then, I had recruited my younger brother Dennis to my cause. Dennis worked alongside me in Dad’s tire shop, but he had never been much of a saver—he loved giving away his money when one of our older siblings asked, and buying snacks to share with the younger ones after church on Sunday was the high point of his week. My earnestness wore off on him, and Dennis began tucking his money away, too. We would escape to California and live like the Boxcar Children.
Dennis loved the stories about California as much as I did, though for him perhaps it was the way our parents’ faces softened when they remembered what it was like growing up. They were happy, carefree, in their stories; the creases in my mom’s forehead would even loosen and she would smile. Seeing other people like that was Dennis’s California.
When we couldn’t fit any more bills in our secret hiding places, Dennis and I began hiding money in envelopes marked with our name in mom’s underwear drawer. I think it’s where she kept their money too, though it was never much. At first, mom wouldn’t tell us where she was keeping it; she’d only say that it was safe. As long as none of the other kids knew about it, I figured, it would be okay. I trusted my mom; I knew she was on our side.
Now on Sundays we’d ask her for the envelopes, and we’d hastily count and recount the bills before handing them back. I couldn’t organize them by letter or number anymore, now that we had such limited time. But the tradeoff was how fat the envelopes got; now, if I was tempted to spend even a little, I’d have to ask her for the envelope and California would seem that much further away.
Dad found out about our plans—maybe at that age we still trusted him with the secrets we kept. He thought it was a great idea. A trip! he said. We would all go on a trip! He was excited. Dennis was ecstatic.
Sure, I had my misgivings. This was my getaway, my escape, my one big secret. But I couldn’t help but get excited, too. While we worked, carrying and stacking and patching tires, we’d plan out what we were going to do, where we were going to go. We’d stay at dad’s parents. We’d go to the beach and Disneyland; maybe we’d even camp in the mountains and explore Catalina. All of the stories would finally come alive.
We figured the best plan would be to drive, since plane tickets are so expensive and that way mom and dad wouldn’t have to save so much and the other kids could come, too. Dad came up with the idea that Dennis and I could pool a percent of our money in a “transportation” envelope to pay for gas, vehicle repairs, and so forth. I hadn’t thought about the car breaking down, and I chastised myself for not thinking of every angle. To make sure that Dennis and I were contributing equally, I counted that envelope every week, too.
After a year, I had saved nearly $400. One day, after dad paid us and we asked mom to bring us out our envelopes, it took longer than usual. I thought I heard them talking behind their bedroom door, and I hoped, crouching outside on the lowest stair-step, that he wasn’t seeing her take our envelopes from her super-secret hiding place.
I knocked on the door. “Mom?” I said, wishing my voice didn’t sound so whiny and childish. I tried again. “Mom, are you getting the–” I looked around and dropped my voice “–the things?”
She came to the door and opened it. Dennis and I had been leaning up against the door, straining to hear, and we tumbled into the room. She had never looked so tired to me. I won’t ever forget that. She looked like she had lost something important, like a piece of her dead mother’s jewelry.
Dad got up off the bed and left for work. If he glanced at us, if he tried to explain what he did or lessen the impact with a look, we didn’t see it. We headed straight to mom, who was holding our envelopes. She handed them to us and left, like she usually did, so we could count our treasure. Our envelopes, the worn envelopes with our names that had been bursting with cash only a week ago. Now they were flat.
Inside each was a note. “I O U, Dad,” the scraps read in my father’s shaky handwriting.
We ran to our mother. She was on our side. She was the only one who could help us. Mom started to explain that we didn’t understand, they needed money for utilities, this was a really hard winter. He’d pay us back, she said weakly; even she didn’t believe it. California reared up in my mind, a castle on a far-off beach, slowly dissolving.