The towering seventy-foot billboard, a cutout cowboy smoking Marlboros, watched over me and bore witness to the woman I had become. Each time I drove past the Chateau Marmont, I gazed up into his eyes and wondered what he thought of the girl who’d arrived in Los Angeles in 1975 on the edge of seventeen with nothing to lose. It may sound crazy to say I hoped he approved, but that wish was no more insane than when I had once sought approval from another cowboy who’d also appeared larger than life, smoked Marlboros, and didn’t say much or pass judgment.
I lived in the Hollywood Hills with my daughter, Vignette, and worked in the graphics department at a record company. As I drove Vignette to school each day, I told her the giant billboard was a picture of her grandfather, Wild Bill. Like my dad always said, “If you’re going to tell a lie, it might as well be a big one.”
Vignette loved hearing my stories about growing up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania with ponies and fields of wildflowers and fruit trees and forests inhabited by mystical wood sprites. It was a magical place of wide-open spaces where imagination could take flight. I left out the part about running away when I was fourteen-years-old.
When Vignette was five, I heard the farm changed hands again and was turning into a suburban enclave. I don’t know whether I had a desire to see the old place one last time or if I felt a need to share it with my daughter to prove that all the stories I’d told her were true.
When our airplane touched down at the Pittsburgh Airport, I knew in my heart there was nothing magical about the farm, and my imagination was the only thing that allowed me to escape.
Renting a car and trying my best to navigate with a map from Avis, I set off with Vignette to find the farm I left behind. Though much of the landscape had changed, I occasionally recognized a familiar landmark, and we found our way to 130 Clever Road.
What struck me as we drove onto the red-rock driveway was how decayed and desolate the once-majestic white clapboard farmhouse appeared atop the hill. As we walked up to the stone pathway, the house was barely visible behind the tall grass and weeds that had overtaken the once-manicured lawn. The morning glories in full bloom sprawled wildly up the front porch ignoring the yellow-tape warnings against entering the roped-off, condemned property. Seeing the farmhouse in this state made me want to throw caution to the wind and savagely yank down the yellow tape. But we ventured no closer than the edge of the forsythia bushes. I wanted to show Vignette the old swing hanging from the pignut tree but feared if I got that close, memories might overtake my better judgment, and the creaky old house would beckon me inside.
The springhouse bore the weight of too much sadness and was about to collapse. The old barn seemed unfazed by the secrets held within its thick wooden beams; the weathered structure stood in defiance of its impending fate.
My daughter clutched my hand as we crossed the fields of my childhood. Dandelion fluff on the breeze tickled our noses, and tall mustard plants tinted our skin yellow. Surveyor sticks mapped out how the property was to subdivide. I wanted to uproot every stick in the ground as if that would somehow stave off the inevitable.
We passed by an apple tree, and I hoisted Vignette up to reach the ripe fruit. On the first bite, her little cheeks puckered up before the sweetness lit up her taste buds. I remembered being five years old and climbing the same tree, reaching for that sweetness that became harder and harder to grasp until it eluded me completely.
Climbing a hill, at last, we hit the edge of the woods. The trees had grown taller, and the undergrowth had become much more entangled, so there was no longer a discernible trail, but I knew the way by memory. A beam of light dappled through the leaves upon an old, fallen tree trunk. It was my secret hiding place. Vignette intuitively sat down in the exact spot I used to sit. She looked so small and innocent, and I realized I was about the same age when I first met the wood sprites I named Copy and Kissy.
Vignette and I sat for some time on the tree trunk, listening to the sounds echoing through the forest. We spotted a mama deer and two baby deer and more bunnies than we could count as slivers of sunlight pierced the tree canopy, giving the woods a heavenly glow. The gentle breeze caressed us, quiet enough that any wood sprites—should they be around—would surely feel sufficiently safe to make themselves known.
After a while, Vignette gave up on seeing the wood sprites.
“Can we go see the barn? I want to see where Princess, your pony, lived.”
We walked back through the thicket. When the barn came into view, it now seemed less ominous to me after our time in the woods. A loose board flapped against another in the breeze.
“Look,” I said as we reached the entrance, “See here. It says 1685, carved right in the stone. That’s when our ancestors built the original barn.”
“You mean the Mexicans?” Vignette’s little nose wrinkled.
“No, your father’s heritage is Hispanic,” I explained. “But my family arrived on ships from England and was among the first settlers in America. A man named William Penn, which is where the name of Pennsylvania comes from, signed the original deed to this farm.”
“Pennsylvania sounds like Transylvania,” she giggled as we walked. “We’re not related to vampires, are we Mommy?”
I opened the door to the barn with a bit of trepidation.
The smells that once pervaded my senses—new-mown hay, leather, and living animals—had turned to a dank, musty odor. I held Vignette’s hand as we stepped carefully past the empty stalls, ready for something sinister to jump out at any moment. We ventured toward a stable in the back, and above us was the plaque I carved with a wood burner, the name “Misty.” Misty was born when I was eight years old and was the offspring of my beloved pony, Princess.
“Follow me.” I darted up the narrow wooden stairs. Vignette stayed close on my heels as we headed to my grandfather’s abandoned workshop to rummage around for something to pry off the sign. The remnants of a moonshine distillery sat cloaked in dust in an open cabinet, and as I breathed in the musky air, I could feel my grandfather’s presence and hear the nasty whistling sound he made when he was coming for me.
“Mommy, are you crying?”
“No, honey, got some dust in my eyes. Let’s get out of here.”
I grabbed the crowbar, intent on rescuing Misty’s sign. It was a relic from my childhood, and I was unwilling to leave it to the wrecking ball.
“So, Misty was your pony, Mommy?”
“No, but she was my pony Princess’ baby, just like you are my baby. That’s why I got to name her and made this sign for her. Look, I have a scar on my finger where I burned myself making that sign.”
“That must have hurt. I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you, too.” Equal measures of joy and sorrow overwhelmed me, conjured by a place I thought I would never see again.
We traipsed outside so I could stow the plaque inside the car, and Vignette spotted an old tractor.
“Look at this cool tractor, Mommy! Can I climb on it?”
“Yes, but be careful,” I said. My mind drifted. I could almost hear the chatter between my sisters and me as we saddled up at the corral to take our horses out for trail rides.
Princess was blind in one eye, so she kept a slower pace than the other horses as we galloped up past the oil rig with its rhythmic chugging and stench of old black oil. The sound of thundering hoofs would ring in my ears, and by the time we reached the top of Gobbler’s Knob, the view would be invisible through the thick cloud of dust, and I’d be as blind as Princess.
The past was so vivid; I almost forgot I wanted to capture this moment with Vignette. As I went back to the car to retrieve my camera, the familiar sound of the gravel crunching beneath my feet unspooled memories of a story my mother had repeated to me throughout my childhood.
Late one night, Bill Butter pulled into the gravel driveway well past midnight. Dean Martin’s just-released record “Volare,” blared over the car radio. Bill continued his drunken crooning after turning off the ignition, though, in his stupor, he left the headlights on. My mother, Clara, peered out the upstairs window to see her husband silhouetted by the car’s lights, stumbling up the stone path, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and a bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand. Annoyed and embarrassed by his returning from these late-night trysts with other women, which had become too frequent, she climbed back into bed, pretending to be asleep, and got tangled up in her oversized flannel nightgown.
A gust of frosty Pennsylvania wind followed Bill up the stairs to the bedroom. He pulled his pants down just far enough to expose his stiffened penis, then threw himself on top of his wife while endeavoring, with frustration, to unravel the nightgown.
Clara realized her best option for keeping their small children from waking was to make way for the inevitable drunken thrust between her naked thighs. When he found his way to an orgasm, he hollered out the name of his current mistress, Pammy Sue, and unceremoniously deposited the seed that would grow into a girl destined to be nothing but trouble. The first sign of said trouble began the very next morning with a dead car battery.
Nine months later, on the first day of fall, my mother gave birth to her fourth child. Dad thought I would be a boy, and he named me Sam. Maybe he hoped I would be a boy so he could stop hearing about Pammy Sue. As luck would have it, he pulled four aces; I was his fourth daughter.
My mother’s frozen heart determined to immortalize her husband’s infidelity and spelled it out on the birth certificate. But for as long as I knew my dad, he never called me by any other name but Sam. I always thought the name suited me. My mother prodded me so often with the reason my name was Pammy that my official name repulsed me.
Vignette tugged on my sleeve and snapped me back to reality. “Mommy, mommy, can we go now? I’m hungry,” she moaned.
“Me too,” I said, and we went back into the car. I threw my camera on the back seat along with the “Misty” sign, figuring I had enough memories of the place. Nothing could change what happened here.
As my daughter and I drove down Clever Road, I glanced back at the old farmhouse in the rearview mirror one last time. It would soon disappear forever, along with the lilac and forsythia bushes and delicate lilies of the valley that poked through the spring thaw each year. The springhouse and the old maple tree where I hugged my grandmother for the last time would be gone.
But they would live on in my memories, along with many things I wished I could forget.