I grew up in two places, primarily, and they are both special to me, but the first thing I think of when I reflect on either one is gunfire.
The place where I lived was the home I grew up in on Buckingham Way. My parents moved us away from there after a FBI sting operation at a mini-mart a stone’s throw away resulted in two Agents dying and the killers hiding out in our neighborhood. One of them in the house behind ours. We were trapped until the criminals were found later that morning; my first experience with quarantine. I remember it being a lot more fun than the current one.
The second place I grew up in was my Dad’s store on the very outskirts of Fresno, where he sold guns, fish bait, sodas, candy, and cigarettes—and not always safely (I’ll spare you the details in this post). Despite the violence of the area and my father’s occupation, I spent a LOT of time in “The Shop” working, playing, shooting plastic army men out back with a BB gun, waiting for dad to finish work so we could go to a movie, and playing “fish out of water” with the minnows in the tanks he kept in the back. Just to torture them. The Shop is firmly imprinted as a magical place on my brain, burned alongside every terrible thing that happened there and because of it. In The Other Side of Fear, my forthcoming book* about all the violence Dad suffered at the Shop and the growing up I did in between it all, I describe my time there this way:
A full-sized Donkey Kong video game cabinet sat near the front door. I spent every possible minute jumping barrels and rescuing damsels in distress, my Atomic Fire Ball cooling in a Dixie Cup full of water next to the joystick (a low-rent chemistry experiment that made it easier for me to skip the “fire” and get right to the sugar). Meanwhile, just a few feet away, someone would ask Dad if he could see a handgun before purchasing a Coke and a pack of Marlboros.
I knew there wasn’t much to it. The entirety of the Shop seemed quite a bit smaller than the three-bedroom house we lived in. Definitely dustier. Winds from the surrounding countryside and farmlands kicked up the dirt surrounding it on the regular, pushing it all inside and casting a thin blanket of wispy grime on the cracked cement floor. A broom behind the counter justified its existence by shooing it all away on at least a quarterly basis. Deep, muddy puddles dressed the Shop on all sides after a rain, with the exception of the side it shared with the bar next door. The front faced out toward the highway, a flat slab of concrete its only accouterment. If you could see it. The manmade parking surface was usually covered in oil and sludge.
The backrooms—secret places at every grocery store and mini-mart my father didn’t own—didn’t hide anything special. Just palettes of beer and soda. The walk-in freezer housing the fishing bait Dad distributed throughout the Valley, as effective as it was as a refuge during the summer, reeked of worm and earth.
I was Bill’s Son, the little prince within the Shop that was his kingdom. The Donkey Kong games were always free of charge. So were the New York Seltzers (always the Vanilla Crème) that gave such sweet relief when the temperatures swelled and the swamp cooler wasn’t cutting it. Drinks, Frozen Burritos of questionable nutritional value, and candy (whose nutritional value—or lack thereof—was never in question) were all there for the taking. Long as I asked King Dad first.
That is a child’s description of a childlike time, devoid of any discussion of the perils or appropriateness of such a place. I didn’t even blink as I ran past the .45’s and the 30 ought 6’s on glorious display in their glass cases. The moral implications of my father making his living by selling instruments of death were too unknown for me to even consider. Neither did I ever imagine that any of the many robberies or arson fires the Shop suffered could occur while I was there. They never had, so why would they? And it never, ever crossed my mind the emotional and financial toll running such a place and depending on it for income took on my mother and father. Not even when Dad desperately sought employment or business opportunities elsewhere did it occur to me that maybe he didn’t love the Shop as much as I did. I thought he just wanted a change of pace; somewhere else fun that I could run around in.
I try not to be nostalgic. There’s so much that’s new, and so many things old in this world I’ve never experienced that I think looking back, even wistfully, can be a trap. We can sometimes mistake times gone by as the very best times, especially compared with today, but it’s often not really the case. Saturday Night Live isn’t “not funny anymore,” you’re only remembering the good sketches. Likewise, recalling the 1950’s as a golden age for morality in the United States is to deny the reality of so many Black Americans and women for whom it was a time of denied rights and diminished personhood.
The Shop wasn’t just my own personal arcade and Dad’s kingdom. It was his death trap.
When I look back on my childhood, the wonderful sits alongside the horrific, comfortably. This is why I can both be glad my daughters haven’t ever experienced the violence and fear my brothers and I did, and I can want to tell them all about it like it was the coolest thing ever, too. Because it was. It was very cool. Fun, even. That’s both the prerogative of youth and the privilege of looking back. Of nostalgia.
Yesterday, I went and visited the site of the Shop, right at the end of Hwy 180 going West out of Fresno. It’s not there anymore. It was demolished some years ago, and nothing has been built to take its place. The Shop was right there, in the space where there is now only dark brown dirt and odd pieces of litter thrown out of speeding, passing cars.
I got out of my car and walked around a little. At near 100 degrees, it was hot, as it always seemed to be whenever I visited the Shop, even in the winter. There’s an AM/PM going up across the street and the highway didn’t used to end right there, but otherwise the surrounding area looks the same.
But it doesn’t feel the same. I got out of the car because I wanted to feel the space again, or at least see if I could. But I couldn’t. The Shop is gone, and it took all the ghosts with it.
Probably better that way.
*The Other Side of Fear is due out Oct. 13, 2020 from Cedar Fort Publishing and will be available in a variety of formats.