Home Sweet Home
We were heading north on California State Highway l0l on our way to Oxnard to pick up my boyfriend Dave’s weekly $94 check at the unemployment office. We had pumped our last four dollars into our car’s gas tank to make the trip over the hill. Neither of us noticed the black and white cruiser following our car until it’s blinking blue and red colorbar flashed in our rearview mirror. We had only been going a little over the limit, trying to build speed before hitting the Camarillo grade so our car could make it up the hill. Forced to give up our momentum, Dave nervously eased our ’74 Mercury into the emergency lane.
The main focus for policemen working the Conejo Valley in 1994 was writing traffic tickets and keeping an eye on the area’s rambunctious teenagers. Dave and I lived in our car, so we were used to being rousted by the cops, usually during the night as we slept, parked in fields and dark corners of parking lots. The cops would casually check our ID, making sure I hadn’t been reported as a runaway when they saw I was 17, and then Dave and I would drive away to sleep somewhere else.
But this time pulled over on the side of the highway, the cop instructed us to get out of the car. The uniformed officer walked us to our trunk, where he crouched down to closely examine the Merc’s chrome bumper. He pointed to a dried, crimson stain against the silver. “What’s this? Looks like blood.”
“Just cocktail sauce,” Dave smiled with a smart ass grin, shrugging his shoulders.
“Open the trunk,” the cop instructed. Did he think we had graduated from underage drinking and pot smoking to joining Murder Incorporated? I almost laughed.
Dave popped the trunk open as I said a silent prayer of thanks that we’d already burned the inch-long roach that had been in our car’s ashtray before lunch. In the Merc’s trunk sat Dave’s empty shrimp cocktail jar next to our old Coleman metal ice chest, camp stove and food supplies.
The cop let us get back into our car while he ran a check on us. After finding Dave’s license clean and no request from either of my parents as to where the hell I was, California’s finest let us continue up the Grade after giving us a citation for the Mercury’s smoking tailpipe.
Dave’s attitude was what had appealed to me when I had met him two months earlier. I had just graduated from high school and living with my mom and her 8 p.m. Saturday night curfew had become intolerable. The town of Thousand Oaks was a mecca for wild weekend parties. That Saturday night, I had gone with a girlfriend to an apartment building where word had spread that there was an eviction party going on.
Two guys who lived there had both lost their jobs and figured they could get out of their lease by being evicted.
I didn’t know Dave or that he was one of the party’s hosts when he tried to pick me up that night. He hadn’t appealed to me at all. His aviator-frame eyeglasses magnified his brown eyes and his brown hair was untamed. Dave’s wardrobe fascinated me more than anything. Earth shoes and a T-shirt with a cartoon picture of a man slamming an ice cream cone onto his forehead. He kept asking me if I wanted to go upstairs and smoke some hash. I didn’t agree to go with him until I found out the apartment was his. I could stay all night and not worry about my mom locking me out. I was tired of sleeping in the storage shed off our patio when I got home to find the apartment door locked.
Dave and I stayed in his room until dawn, fucking and smoking, snorting my first taste of cocaine from a small wooden box Dave kept his stash in. On my limited wages from selling sneakers part-time at Van’s Tennis Shoes, I was used to buying one-dollar rolls of ten mini-crosses if I wanted some speed. For what I knew Dave must have paid for the coke, I thought my whites were a much better deal.
We slept until Sunday afternoon and he hitchhiked with me Monday morning to go grab my belongings while my mom was at work. “You can move in with me if you want,” Dave had offered shyly. “It’ll take ‘em a few weeks to kick us out.” Life growing up stuck between my battling divorced parents, I had gone to a different school every year as my siblings and I bounced from state to state, parent to parent to grandparents. Living with Dave would simply be another new episode.
I had no more settled into my first experience of shacking up when I was fired from my job. I worked the shoe store alone on Friday nights and had gotten into the habit of entertaining friends in between sizing customers for canvas deck shoes. The vast variety of cigarette butts in the overflowing ashtrays must have given me away to the manager.
That same week, the landlord at Dave’s apartment complex nailed a notice to the front door informing us that the sheriff would be there to bodily move us out in three days. I sure did not want to move back home. “Let’s buy a car,” Dave suggested. “We can sleep in it.” Luckily I’d just picked up my $794 tax refund check at my mom’s place while she was out. Dave and I bought a copy of the News Chronicle and phoned the only ad selling a car for 750 bucks.
Our new home was a 20-year-old, two-tone Mercury straight out of that Dragnet show on the oldies channel. The yellowed cream and faded black sedan had wide seats that could have held a family of four. We filled the rear leg area with our belongings to the level of the seat and with two sleeping bags opened across the whole mess, it was almost like a double bed.
The ’94 Merc’s huge trunk became our kitchen after we bought a rusting green metal ice chest and a dented Coleman stove from the Humane Society Thrift Store. Over the next two months we were able to fill our rolling pantry with free food from a church-run charity that operated out of a large house fronting Thousand Oaks Boulevard, one of the two main drags in town. The street-side wide windowless wall of the beige house was emblazoned with tall, red letters proclaiming, “Jesus Saves!”
And he did. Middle-class, middle-aged housewife saviors had turned the garage of the house into an old-time country store where a person down on their luck was allowed to fill one cardboard box with a variety of items. The four grocery stores in town donated dented cans of vegetables, tuna, crumpled boxes of macaroni and cheese, and whatever else was unsaleable yet edible.
Without a permanent address or the patience to wait for unemployment to mail us a double check every two weeks, Dave and I would drive over the Grade, past the fields of strawberries and lettuce bordering Oxnard, and collect Dave’s weekly money.
Five years earlier, I’d driven past the same fields while living with my grandparents. It seemed like three lifetimes had passed since then. I used to love listening to my grandmother educate us five kids about farming on our way to Point Mugu Naval Base to buy our weekly groceries at the commissary.
“They’re growing cabbage there,” Nana would tell us, pointing at the perfect rows of green rolling past us. “And those stalks look like green onions.”
When my grandfather retired and wanted to move us all to Seattle, my father stepped in. Claiming he didn’t want his kids moving to another state even though he’d come to see us only four times in five years, he insisted we move in with him, his new wife and her three boys. That situation had quickly turned into a twisted Brady Brunch from Hell for my brothers and sisters and me, so the five of us continued bouncing among our mother, grandparents and father too many times to count.
After falling in with Dave, the thought of calling my family for help never entered my mind. Living with a guy in a ’94 Mercury was just the way it was for the time being.
To stretch our budget for food the church didn’t provide, at Von’s Market, Dave would stuff blocks of cheese or cellophane-wrapped packages of steaks down his pants, pulling his shirt over his waistband before we headed to the checkout to pay for our lower cost items. Somehow, we still had enough discretionary income to buy blue and silver six-packs of Schlitz Malt and to splurge on 99-cent shrimp cocktails that came in small glass bottles.
We’d make tuna sandwiches out of the open trunk of our car while overlooking the green grass of Conejo Park. Whether I was still carefree enough at l7 or hungover from the Schlitz Malt, back then I was barely bothered by Dave’s sloppiness as he slurped leftover sauce from the shrimp glass, spilling horseradish-spiked tomato sauce down the Merc’s back bumper.
We’d no more mailed in a $52 money order for the tailpipe ticket that cop had given us on the Grade when the Mercury up and died on us in the Von’s parking lot. Once again saved by the federal government, only two days earlier we’d picked up Dave’s own income tax refund at his parents’ place.
Dave put a dime in the payphone in front of the market to call an old man he knew with a wrecking yard in Santa Paula. Before I met Dave, he had developed the habit of buying beater cars on their last legs, then driving them until they dropped. Rather than spend money on repairs, he’d sell them for salvage and start over. Within an hour, a skinny, graying black man drove up in an aging Ford tow truck and hooked it to the front bumper of our dead home. “Don’t have one of these at the yard,” he said. “I’ll give you the usual two hundred.”
Dave and I climbed into the cab of the tow truck and the old junkman dropped our belongings and us at the Exxon station that fronted the freeway at Newbury Park. We watched the back of the Mercury as it bounced away to its final resting-place in automotive purgatory.
The owner of the gas station walked out from one of the bays.
“Hey, Dave,” he said, smiling.
The middle-aged man’s broad grin revealed perfect white teeth below a crooked nose and bright blue eyes, his tanned arms sticking out of the short-sleeved jumpsuit with his name embossed on a once-white sewn-on patch.
“Roy, how ya doing?” Dave asked his old boss who’d laid him off four months earlier when the economy tanked. “Got any wheels you could give me a good price on?”
Roy ran his blackened nicked fingers through his thick hair and then pointed to a l980 white Ford station wagon with fake wood paneling. The car was identical to one my parents had owned before their divorce, when they’d pile my pajama-clad brothers and sisters and I into the back, my baby sister Chris asleep in a dresser drawer, to go to the drive-in to see Mary Poppins or other Disney flicks.
“She’s no freeway flyer,” said Roy. “But won’t strand ya anywhere. You can have her for a hundred.”
To seal the deal, Roy threw in half a tank of precious gas and Dave and I arranged our world across the folded-down rear seats of the wagon. After living in a sedan, it was like moving from a studio apartment to a penthouse.
The next day I cut up a blue Indian tapestry we had and hand-sewed the long pieces of material into curtains. Dave ran wire above the back windows and behind the front seat to hang the curtains on. It was Home Sweet Home.
The only time the wagon gave us any trouble over the next couple of months was when we accidentally drove down a dead-end street near the used record store in Agoura where we’d gone to sell our CD collection for a buck apiece. I gave up the Beatles music I’d owned since junior high along with Dave’s faves, like his Steely Dan and spacey Moody Blues albums.
Driving away from the store, the sun was in our eyes until we came to a chain where the pavement died. Dave put the wagon in reverse only to discover our transmission had lost that gear. Between the two of us, we barely managed to push our car up the slight incline and back onto the two-way street.
For something to do, we drove to an empty field on the edge of town where we’d noticed a carnival setting up earlier that morning. The aging blue, red and green Ferris wheel was still only a half circle among other tattered amusement rides in different stages of completion. Two-man crews in dirty blue jeans unloaded metal panels rimmed with colored light bulbs and peeling portraits of grinning clowns and patched-eye pirates.
Both of us got out of the car as an old man with one opaque eye approached us. “Looking for work?”
“Sure,” Dave answered. We knew the wagon’s missing reverse was a sign of things to come and we could use some cash when it came time to put the Country Squire out to pasture.
The whiskered man told us to check in at a travel trailer at the end of the midway. The woman inside had the miles she’d traveled tattooed across her face and her polyester pantsuit was long past laundry day. She wasn't interested in W-2 forms or Social Security numbers.
“Honey, you can help out in the floss wagon tonight,” she told me and sent Dave to ask for John over at the Mile-Hi.
“What’s the Mile-Hi?” Dave asked as she shooed us away from her aluminum door.
The woman stepped outside and pointed to stacked rows of metal framing resting next to a small, rusting crane.
“The rollercoaster over there. You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”
Dave spent the rest of the day working with John and an old guy named Ted putting up the collapsible sections of the old rollercoaster. Minimum wage at the time was $4.25 but both of us were being paid two dollars an hour. Hardly worth it, I thought, watching Dave sixty feet up in the air, working on top of one of the upstretched sections of track support. The crisscrossed metal frame shuddered and gave a jerk, then collapsed ten feet to the lower level before stopping. With Dave hanging on. Ted and John thought Dave was all right after that.
As each section of track rose up to the next, the guys would fit small metal spikes through holes that matched up on each rail. They used pieces of wire cut from coat hangers to thread through a hole in the spike, hoping to keep the whole thing from rattling apart during the carnival.
In the afternoon, I was put to work in the windowed floss wagon. Cotton candy “floss” was the first thing a girl with a missing middle tooth taught me to make. We poured a bag of pink tinted sugar into a round silver basin, turned on a switch and waited for the strands of sugar to form. By my second try, I could twirl a paper cone through the whirling wisps of pink strands like my last name was Barnum or Bailey.
The other main menu item I learned to make was corn dogs. Not those ready-made frozen ones, each exactly the same shape as another. We started with a long white box filled with raw frankfurters, stabbing each one up its center with long vampire wooden spikes.
We mixed water into a powdered corn meal mix to make the thick batter to dip the skewered wieners into before dunking them into the bubbling deep fryer. This skill took me a few tries. My first few batches were horribly misshapen creatures, quite unsaleable but delicious with ketchup and mustard.
During a cigarette break from my food creation duties, I joined Dave at the completed platform where the coaster cars would later be loaded with ticket-wielding customers.
“John said we could have the first ride,” Dave told me and we each climbed into our own car. I double-checked to make sure the bar across my lap was locked in place as John pushed the start switch. Dave pretended to be a real carnie and rode with the bar up. A revolving chain beneath the track pulled us up the first incline. Just as we crested the top of the track, Dave leaned back to holler at me over the din of the creaking chain.
“We need to do a test run to make sure the airbrakes work.”
We rode the up and down curves of the coaster five times as John tested the hissing brakes. Each time we pulled into the platform, other carnies would jump into the cars behind us for a go-round. Stupid idiots liked to stand up, their arms held high as the ride jerked around the last corner before whooshing down the final long hill. Didn’t they realize they would be unable to earn their lousy two bucks an hour running the Tilt-A-Whirl if they broke their backs?
By dusk, I was arranging piles of fresh corndogs under heat lamps and pushing cups of Coke and popcorn through the open windows of the floss wagon in exchange for fistfuls of cash.
At the end of the weekend-long Conejo Valley Days Celebration, all the amusement rides were torn down and packed back into the battered semi-trailers under which most of the younger workers slept in sleeping bags at night. The older employees who supervised the crews resided in a variety of camper vans and RV’s.
The two old guys who ran the coaster with Dave lived out of the sleeper cabs in the two tractor-trailers used to store and haul the Mile-Hi. John and Ted had taken a decidedly paternal stance toward Dave and I, shaking their heads that such a nice young couple was living in an old station wagon with no reverse.
“Tell you what,” John told us, “if you wanna come with us down to our next stop in San Diego, I’ve got a travel trailer stored in Reseda. We’ll haul it with us and you two can stay in that instead. Just have to clean it up.”
We went with John for the thirty minute ride to Reseda, leaving behind the grassy, tree-dotted hills of Thousand Oaks for a sagging chain-link fenced storage yard on a litter-filled street situated in the urban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. He pointed to an older aluminum 18-foot trailer with a faded red racing stripe and a scalloped metal wing perched on each side of the rear roof. John and Dave positioned the truck in front of the metallic house on wheels and hooked it up to haul back to Thousand Oaks.
The fairground was emptying as the other operators pulled their vehicles and equipment toward the freeway heading south to their next gig.
“We’re not leaving until tomorrow so John can pick up his Social Security check at the post office,” Dave informed me.
“Great. That’ll give me a chance to clean up the trailer.”
I unlocked the metal front door with the key John had given me, excited to see our new home. After the station wagon, it’d be like living in the Playboy Mansion.
I expected some dust and grime inside the portable place. Stepping into the trailer, my shoe didn’t even make contact with the Formica floor. Every inch of space was buried in magazine pages. The pieces of paper covered the floor, sofa, countertops and breakfast booth. Hundreds of pictures of naked women in various poses, costumes and scenarios. I would’ve given anything for a pair of gloves.
I kept telling myself anything was better than sleeping in our car. It wasn’t until I was carrying out a third stuffed garbage bag that I noticed a framed old piece of cross-stitch nailed over the threshold of the door that read “Home Sweet Home.” I tried to think of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, old black and white photographs of dust bowl victims I’d seen once in Life magazine, and my own ancestors crossing the expanse of America in covered wagons. But instead, my head was full of stupid sitcom songs.
Yeah, we were moving on up.
Tracy has won numerous awards for both fiction and non-fiction, including an honorable mention from PEN Women. Her work has appeared in Painted Cave, Gila River Review, and Route 7. She and her husband traded carnival life for the suburbs. You can read more of her work at https://tracymears.wordpress.com.