Mud by Amy Mackin
The six houses on our street each sat on a graduated incline, but our slope was the sharpest, it being on the crest. Hiding spots were hard to find. There were no trees to define the edges or provide privacy between the property lots—we had a view of every other house on the hill, and they all had an unobstructed view of ours. Occasionally, one of the neighbors would plant a couple of flowering shrubs or a row of young evergreens to mark their land, but this greenery rarely survived, much less thrived. The gradient was too steep. Come spring, rain water and melting snow flowed relentlessly toward the old railway below, taking a cut of the topsoil with it. A little more of the land eroded with each passing year, rendering the backyards mostly unusable.
Despite the dismal odds, whoever originally owned our small 1950s Cape Cod-style home chose to defy nature by building a twelve-by-twenty-foot rectangle of relatively level land into what was then their slice of the hill, stabilizing it with a retaining wall made of large rocks and masonry mud. It took numerous shovelfuls of dirt each spring to replenish, but that level tract had otherwise held for 30 years. My mother claimed half of it to tend a meager garden; the other half was covered with a stretch of cracked concrete pavers, where my father would sit in a folding lawn chair on summer evenings and puff a cheap cigar. This was the only outdoor living space we had, and it left a lot to be desired, but my parents relished it as if it were a lush oasis. I was not as impressed, and by the time I grew old enough to understand that kids who lived on the other side of town had “real” yards with swing sets or pools, I resented that patio garden—and my parents, for loving it so much. In my mind, that concrete slab’s one redeeming factor was the walkout basement door that led to it. If I thought far enough ahead, I’d leave that door unlocked from the inside, providing me a path to creep back into the house undetected on the days when I skipped school.
I’d gotten away with it several times over the previous two years. I’d leave my house as if I were embarking on the 20-minute walk to Williams Junior High, then I’d circle around the Portuguese-American Club at the far west end of my neighborhood, slide down the hill to the sand pits below, and take shelter in one of the abandoned train cars that sat decomposing on moss-covered tracks. When I was sure everyone was gone, I’d hike back up to my own backyard. But that day in October, I hadn’t thought ahead. I hadn’t left the basement door unlocked, and even if I had, the curtain of cold rain that blew across our town that morning would have made the trek down to the train cars, and the climb back up, too messy and slick. It was a Monday, only a month and a half into the new school year, but I’d already had enough. So I improvised. I feigned running late and hurried out the door just 10 minutes before my father typically left for work. My mother’s nursing shift started a full hour earlier, so once my father was gone, I’d be in the clear. I ducked around the side of the house to wait.
I wasn’t wearing a watch that morning, but it felt like I’d been there for at least a half hour. With nothing to absorb the rainfall, water gathered in a natural gully and cascaded down the side of our house, forming a narrow brown tidal wave that swept loose dirt, pebbles, dried leaves, and broken twigs into its momentum. I had no choice but to crouch directly in its path. My favorite acid-washed jeans were quickly mud-stained from the knees down; my bomber jacket was soaked through; and the new Nikes I’d bought with my own money were wrecked. My shoulder-length hair dripped in a sticky perfumed mess, thanks to the gobs of Aqua Net I’d used to freeze some teased-out tresses in place the day before.
Why hadn’t Dad left yet? I could still see a corner of the dented chrome bumper that belonged to his old Dodge truck; he’d parked it on the street the night before. I knew he hadn’t caught a ride with a coworker because the lights in the house were still on, and my father was a stickler for keeping the electric bill down.
When I finally heard our warped storm door slam against its frame, I pushed even further into my hiding spot between the two six-foot-by-three-foot propane tanks that stored the fuel for the water heater, the stove, and the clothes dryer we used when it was too snowy or wet to hang our garments on the line. These cylindrical containers were each bracketed to the house and my head was wedged between them. My ears stung from the touch of cold steel. I was grateful that I’d soon be in the sanctuary of a warm, empty kitchen where I could clean myself up and make a cup of hot chocolate.
I listened for the truck’s sputtering engine to turn over while I planned my day—study for my upcoming math test, read the new book I’d borrowed from the public library, daydream about the cute boy who had just moved to town. Then something gripped the back of my jacket, shaking me out of my imagination. I turned to find my father standing over me.
“The school called,” he said.
My father took hold of my arm and pulled me up the incline toward the rusted chain link fence that separated our tiny patch of weedy front lawn from the road.
“Get in,” he ordered when we reached his truck. His tone had an almost exuberant air, like an actor auditioning for a role that he’d waited his entire life to play.
I slid onto the vinyl bench seat and felt my soggy underwear bunch up under my jeans. “You taking me to school?” I asked, “I’m soaked and covered in mud.”
“You made your bed; you lie in it,” he replied with a smirk.
My father was known for being a troublemaker back when he was growing up in this town, though his behavior was more likely a response to a somewhat tyrannical father and a less-than-ideal home life than it was an indication of his overall nature. At seventeen, he wore a leather jacket, rode a beat-up motorcycle, and possessed James Dean good looks. My mother was a God-fearing brainiac who aspired to be a missionary in China, but who apparently also had a secret penchant for bad boys, because after almost 25 years of marriage, many of my parents’ friends and former classmates still couldn’t figure how those two got together. My father told stories of minor mischief with pride and confessed major infractions with only a wry regret. Over time, my mother became a co-conspirator in his audacity. I think she enjoyed it.
“I ran into Joe a few years later,” my father said at dinner the week before, after telling the story of how he and a classmate got kicked out of high school for throwing punches at each other in a campus building,
And we couldn’t even remember what we were fighting about that day. It was late April when they kicked us out, only six or seven weeks of school left, and the principal told us we’d have to do the whole year all over again if we wanted to graduate. I went back that September and eventually received my diploma, but Joe didn’t. He got into the construction business. Made more money than I ever did, that’s for sure.
My father half-chuckled at this sour realization and then gazed out the window, while my brother and I dove into the mashed potatoes my mother had just dropped on our plates. Mom was smiling, still amused by this story that she’d surely heard at least 50 times over the years.
For a man with few academic or professional achievements, my father’s high school antics and exploits were how he’d be remembered, and now I was apparently following in his impish footsteps. A chip off the old block. Maybe he thought my being dragged into the current principal’s office and forced to finish out the day filthy and waterlogged would not only teach me a lesson but also bestow upon our family, or further solidify, a legacy of small rebellions.
My father may have thought differently, but there was no master plan on my part. I was neither actively trying to rebel nor was I skipping class to participate in some infinitely more desirable activity to impress my peers. I simply hated school and had gotten overly confident in my ability to forge sick notes and concoct elaborate stories for the attendance clerk, which was likely what led to my capture.
“Here she is,” Dad announced, as he nudged me toward the secretary who served as gatekeeper to the school’s administrative offices.
“Name?” the woman asked.
“I’m Don,” my father said before I could answer. “I spoke with you on the phone. This is my delinquent daughter, Amy.” He offered her an exaggerated wink, but she barely looked up from the piece of paper she was studying.
“Truant?” she asked me.
“Yeah,” I muttered.
“Alright. Sit there until Mr. McCarthy is free.” She nodded toward the wooden bench that lined the opposite wall. “He’ll tell you what happens next.”
Mr. McCarthy was Assistant Principal of the middle school and tasked with handling all disciplinary issues. The secretary’s order was my father’s cue that he could leave, but my father was never very good at interpreting social signals.
“Place looks different since the last time I was here,” he mused, hoping the secretary would bite. She didn’t. My father was an unabashed storyteller, eager for an audience. He would continue with a narrative even if it was obvious that no one in the room wanted to hear it. This often annoyed and embarrassed me, yet I was mildly angered when someone else like this secretary ignored him.
Dad was also a gifted revisionist and had no ethical issues with glorifying or embellishing otherwise insignificant details to heighten their impact. Whether he always had this tendency or developed it as a way of keeping people’s attention, I didn’t know. Regardless, I was pretty sure that in the years to come when he recounted that day’s events, he would boast of his little girl who hadn’t fallen far from the tree, and this uneventful scene would take on a more ostentatious slant. My teenage “whatever” attitude would become a deeply embarrassed shame, as the secretary and assistant principal openly mocked me. A half dozen phantom administrators or students might miraculously appear in later versions to participate in this sneering ridicule that never actually happened. After he told this version of the story enough times, he’d believe it; others would too, and it would be accepted into our rich trove of family folklore.
Aside from suffering the day encrusted in dirty, dripping clothes and squeaky, sloshing sneakers that punctuated my every move, the consequences of my crime consisted of a punitive notation on my formerly unblemished transcript and a one-week sentence to in-school detention, effective immediately. Mr. McCarthy ushered me to a bleak basement storage space that had been repurposed for this specific punishment. I’d never been in trouble at school before, so I expected an authoritative lecture along the way, but he just grumbled something about getting back on the right track before my high school career began.
Because it was well into second period by then, all but two of the desks in the detention room were already occupied. Both vacancies were in the front row and faced a larger metal work table where a guidance counselor sat reading a magazine. “Take a seat,” the counselor said, as he handed me a folder of worksheets. “Your teachers will assemble study plans for the rest of the week. By tomorrow, you’ll have a stack of assignments to get through.”
I had no friends here—this was not my usual crowd, though I’d had a class with a few of the kids in the room at one point or another. It didn’t matter. We were forbidden to talk in detention, so preexisting relationships were inconsequential. But at lunch, when we were banished to a segregated table in the back of the cafeteria, there was enough targeted jeering by student passers-by for me to size up my fellow detainees, at least to a middle-school degree of detail. I concluded that we were a motley bunch who’d committed minor infractions like smoking in the bathroom or swearing at a teacher, along with truants like myself, intermingled with some relatively hard-core drug-users who’d already transitioned from pot to acid by the age of twelve or thirteen.
There were also a couple of perpetually troubled kids in the group who had been caught fighting on school grounds. I didn’t know them personally, but knew of them, thanks not only to their consistent presence at the very lunch table where I now found myself, but also because their family dramas fueled the town rumor mill. Those two seemed thoroughly immune to this institutional attempt at public shaming, and I wasn’t surprised. From what I’d heard about their parents, they were probably suffering far worse punishments at home than anything the school could dish out.
As for my family situation, I wasn’t scolded that night, or even questioned. My mother left the discipline to my father, and he’d already taken care of that by handing me over to the school. Neither of my parents seemed to wonder why their otherwise studious daughter would decide to skip class. Just like they never asked what caused the marks on my body that appeared at regular intervals through the previous spring and again over those early autumn weeks, dismissing them to “she bruises easily” or “she’s a bit uncoordinated—hasn’t grown into her own body yet.” That was true; I was uncoordinated, and I did bruise easily. Still do. But those particular black and blue marks were from a group of girls who endlessly tormented me in the school’s hallways, locker room, and cafeteria, before finally taking a shortcut through the woods one afternoon to ambush me on my walk home. No one ever asked, and I never told. Back then being the victim of bullies was considered a rite of passage, a necessary step to adulthood for the weaker among us. “You’ll survive,” they would have said. And I did.
* * *
The bullying let up some after my muddy transgression was put on full display—I’d earned a small measure of suburban street cred with my insubordination. But I continued to skip school that year nonetheless, relying more on phony illnesses and “girl problems” that allowed me to take days off with my parents’ reluctant acceptance. School got increasingly more bearable as the years passed and both the bullies and the bullied matured. Still, I spent most of high school counting the days until I’d be free. Not long after graduation, I took a job in Boston and left home for good.
But my parents never left, even when it made no sense to stay. Maybe they were financially stuck, or just set in their ways, but they continued to live in that same house perched above the sand pits and eventually became the only residents from my youth who remained. When the factory that anchored our neighborhood closed down a few years after I moved out, houses were sold or abandoned, and the mostly immigrant families departed for areas offering better opportunities. Some of the properties were bought up by absentee landlords and rented to students attending the nearby state college or to employees of the large prison complex that had become the area’s primary employer. The country was now on the cusp of a different sort of economy, one that would be based in California’s Silicon Valley, not on the banks of New England’s rivers and railroads.
I continued to visit my parents regularly in my early twenties, but much less so once I got married. When the kids came along, it was easier for my parents to visit my place—the high chairs, playpen, baby bottles, and toys were already there; the rooms were childproofed; and I had a lot more space for company than my parents did. Then the kids got older, started school and sports, and life got so very busy.
Two years ago, I finally visited my parents’ house again. My mother had been sick for some time and was no longer up to traveling. Driving through my old neighborhood after being away for so long was jarring. Beer cans and broken-down vehicles littered the familiar yards, and many of the quaint post-war Capes and bungalows were in disrepair. My parents told of police responding to one or another raucous party, domestic dispute, or street fight on a weekly basis. My father called me later that year to report that a young woman’s body had been found down by the train tracks, bound and battered beyond recognition.
This past spring, I made another trip home—to coordinate my mother’s funeral. After the service, I went back to my parents’ house to sort out paperwork that Dad would need in the following weeks. On my way out, I paused at the rusted fence that my father pulled me toward more than three decades earlier when he’d caught me skipping school on that drenching day. The chain links were all missing, either oxidized to dust or stolen for scrap, but the steel support posts still outlined the tiny front lawn. I walked down the hill, past the propane tanks, and stumbled over a protruding piece of broken concrete. I’d missed the boundary; both the patio and its accompanying garden were now barely visible beneath the encompassing weeds and debris that marked my mother’s years of cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation. I should’ve helped take care of the flowers, I thought, helped clear the mud. But it always seemed like too much trouble then—I had my own garden to keep.
As I marveled at how quickly nature reclaimed a generation’s worth of cultivating and shaping, I caught a glimpse of color hiding in the overgrowth. I pushed aside invasive stalks of wild oat and witch grass to find a stubborn bloodroot that had forced itself through the soggy soil. In dogged defiance of the perpetual neglect, it stood tall and proud, as if to prove that a new generation of peonies, hydrangeas, and cottage roses could thrive in this once-loved space, if only I’d stay long enough to plant and nurture them.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, as I turned and hiked back up the hill toward my car.
Amy Mackin writes at the intersection of media, science, cultural history, and social equity. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain Child, The Writer’s Chronicle, Literary Mama, Witness, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Watershed Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works in Boston-area nonprofit development.