Misspent Youth

I found something the other day which I thought I’d left behind and or lost in all of my various moving over the years. It’s a stop sign which my grandfather gave to me many years ago. He used to be the custodian for a small shopping center in West Carrolton, Ohio. It was often that he brought home all sorts of toys, trinkets, and assorted boxes of junk left behind by the previous tenants of each small space when their lease was up, they defaulted on their payments or cleared out their stock so when he found a stash of street signs haphazardly tossed behind the dumpster one morning he didn’t think twice before gathering them up and bringing them home. There were two street names, a speed limit sign, a stop sign, and a no u-turn sign. When my mom, sisters and I arrived at my grandparents house for our weekly visit and I bounced out into the back yard I was immediately mesmerized by them. I asked about them, and when the only answer I received was an incomplete one about finding them in a dumpster my imagination began to run wild. The stop sign had a tear on the edge, which I now know to be a bullet hole. All afternoon I played in the back yard thinking of any possible scenario for the signs.

The afternoon passed into evening and eventually it was time to go home. I wanted to take them home, but my mother insisted that we needed to call the city and figure out where they went first, but my grandfather didn’t see the harm in me taking one. So he helped me sneak the stop sign into the back of the car unnoticed. It was our little secret, until a few days later when my mom went grocery shopping and discovered it in the back of the car. I got a mild scolding, but it was eventually forgotten and I was allowed to hang the sign in my bedroom where it remained for the duration of my time at my parents house. I didn’t think anything of it other than it was awesome and it accented my license plate collection perfectly.

Several years later as I was packing my things to move out into my first apartment, with my boyfriend (John) visiting my parent’s house for the first time to help me. I met him at the front door and lead him quickly past my mother and down to my bedroom in the basement.

“It’s kind of a mess. Well no, it’s a wreck, but y’know. I’m too busy working to clean. Sorry.” I explained slightly embarrassed, but not really as I opened the door and revealed my piles of laundry and other various junky items collected through adolescence. The walls were plastered with posters, art, and just about anything else I could think of including my stop sign and license plates.

“Good God, how do you find anything in here?” John said honestly as he peered around me into the room.

“Yeah… It’s a mess. This is why I needed your help.” I laughed nervously.

“You don’t need my help. You need a dump truck, and a shovel.” John answered, taking stock of my mountains of laundry and cluttered mess. “Where did you get that stop sign?”

“My grandpa found it behind a dumpster up in West Carrolton. He used to work at a shopping center as a janitor/custodian person.” I answered casually not thinking too much about it.

“Just the stop sign?” John asked staring at the sign almost mesmerized by it.

“No there were a few other signs. Some street names, a speed limit sign, and a no u-turn sign, why?” I asked.

“A shopping center? Off of 725?” John asked, still entranced by the sign.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t driving yet. There was an Odd Lots, a pharmacy, and a Taco Bell right around there. I know where it is, but I don’t know how to tell you where it is unless I show you.” I answered. “Why?”

“I think I might have been the one who put it there.” John answered.

“Seriously?” I asked with a small snort of laughter at the irony of the situation. “There’s a number on the back.”

He stepped over several piles of clothes and pulled the sign from the wall peering behind it to read the serial number on the back of it.

“I don’t remember. You’ll have to show me where he found it.” John said with a distant, yet sad tone in his voice.

I was about to inquire as to why he was so distant and distracted, but the moment was interrupted by my mother poking her head into my room and asking us how the cleaning/packing was going and making some remark about my clutter.

John and I finished packing up my clothes, loaded as many as we could into his Corolla and headed up to my apartment. After we dropped off the load of boxes we headed up towards West Carrollton. For some reason he really wanted to know where my grandpa found the sign. With out any directions from me, he arrived in the then completely abandon shopping center.

“There up on the left. That’s the shopping center where my grandpa used to work.” I said, pointing to the left as John pulled into the parking lot.

“I knew I left them here! We were running from the cops and had to stash them somewhere. I needed them, but when I came back to get them they were gone. I got the shit beat out of me for that.” John said quietly pulling into a parking space, and putting the car in park.

“Why did you need them? Who needs street signs?” I asked completely ignorant to the circumstances which John was implying. He had mentioned his involvement with one of the local gangs, but I was too young and naive to put the two together, just as I was too naive to equate the damage on the stop sign as a bullet hole.

“Back in high school… It was a challenge. I had to get the certain signs from certain places and bring them back proving that I did it.” John answered, sparing the details and leaving my ignorance fully intact.

“A challenge in high school?” I answered with a laugh. “For the swim team? Boys and their displays of manhood.”

“It wasn’t exactly for the swim team, but yeah. It wasn’t the best idea in the world. After those disappeared and I got the shit beat out me I had to get ten more.” John answered still not correcting my ignorance which looking back on it now was really unusual. “I did it the second time.”

“What did you earn for your efforts?” I asked with a disapproving, sarcastic tone in my voice.

“Respect.” John answered simply as we walked into the store.

“So you broke the law, got chased by the cops, beat up, and all you got was respect?” I asked in disbelief.

“They said it couldn’t be done, and I did it. Technically twice, but thanks to SOMEBODY’S GRANDPA, we’re the only people who know that. Do you know how hard it is to get those signs down with out getting caught? Not to mention carrying them.” John explained. “And I spent all that time in the wrong territory. I was basically a sitting duck. If I got caught by anyone else except the police I would have been dead.”

It was then that I briefly understood what he was talking about. I made the connection with territory to gang activity.

“Wait, territory? Are you okay? Should we be here?” I whispered visibly tensing.

“Sure. It’s been years, and besides who’s going to be looking for me here? It’s literally the last place anyone would expect me to be: right under their nose. We’ll be fine.” John answered nonchalantly. “And I’m always 100% aware of my surroundings at all times. If I see anyone we should be worried about I’ll let you know.”

I stood there for a moment searching his face for any sign of a lie, and when I was satisfied that he was telling the truth we finished wandering around the store and returned to the car.

“Since we’re up here, would you mind driving by my grandparents old house? It’s right down the road. I haven’t been by there in forever.” I asked as we hopped in the car.

“Yeah, that’s fine. Where is it?” John asked starting the car and pulling out into the flow of traffic.

“Enxing Ave. Just a ways down Alex, by the paper factory.” I answered.

“I know where that is.” John answered as he turned down the correct road and headed off toward my grandparents former house.

He turned down the correct street with out any guidance from me and slowly creeped down the street. I listed off things I remembered about each house having spent most of my childhood in the neighborhood just as much as my own.

“We helped that lady move. We’d never spoken to her before but she was having trouble with something on the sidewalk and mom stopped to see if she needed help. We ended up spending the entire afternoon with her helping her pack. She gave me a stuffed duck. And that house had the Siamese cats. Two of them that went every where. They scared me, but I secretly wanted one. If I ever have a cat it will be Siamese. This is where my grandparents lived. The one with the pine tree in the front.” I explained as we pulled into the drive way. “They cut down the maple tree! I can’t believe it! We used to sit in the front yard and play in the biggest pile of orange leaves every fall. I’d never seen a pile of leaves so big. One year we piled it up over top of the pine tree.”

“How long did they live here?” John asked content to listen to my stories, and genuinely interested in what I had to say.

“I don’t know. As long as I can remember, up until a few years ago. The neighborhood was getting a little too rough for them. There was always shady people at the house across the street and when it got raided that was the last straw.” I answered.

“Which house?” John asked turning around in his seat to see which house I was talking about.

“That one there.” I answered also turning to point to the house in question.

“I spent a lot of time in that house.” John answered with out an explanation.

“Are you serious? When? I probably saw you. What were you driving?” I asked, once again completely missing John’s implication. Here I was telling him about all the criminal activity going on in this house, and he was trying to tell me that he had been involved in it, but unable to see no wrong in my beloved it went right over my head.

“You probably did. I was here a lot. The Taurus Wagon.” John answered quietly.

“No way! I DO remember you! I remember because we had a Taurus Wagon, and I remember saying: ‘Hey the neighbors have a car just like ours!’” I laughed again, merely at the irony of our lives being so closely intertwined for years yet never officially having a legitimate conversation until 2005.

“That was me. I actually do remember your car being parked here one time. I thought it was mine and tried to get in it. I was PISSED the door wouldn’t unlock, until I realized it wasn’t my car.” John said with a sheepish smile.

“I remember that night! Grandma was about to have a heart attack because she thought some guy was trying to break into our car. Mom called the cops and everything. I can’t believe that was you. That’s so weird.” I said, a weird cheesy grin spreading across my face. “Anyway, we’ve been sitting here in this driveway forever. We should probably go. Can we stop one more place before we head home? There’s a park just around the corner we used to go to all the time.”

“The park at the top of the hill?” John asked.

“Yeah, have you been there?” I asked, excited that a place so near and dear to my heart was remembered by some one else outside of my family.

“I used to hang out there all the time.” John answered as he backed out of the driveway and headed toward the park.

We drove up the hill and pulled to a stop in the small quiet parking lot as I peered out the window in wonder soaking up all the memories of that place, Hintermeister Park.

“The last time I was here Grandpa, Beverly and I were walking back over there towards the woods and we witnessed a massive drug deal. It was the only time I’ve ever been really freaked out by strangers. We were minding our own business, but these creeps kept staring at us. It really freaked me out, especially when one of the guys followed us back down the hill after we left. I will always remember that. He was in a green Camerro with the license plate “2Wild4U”. As soon as we left the park he crept behind us all the way down the hill to one of those houses down there. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I couldn’t sleep for weeks afraid that some one was going to come find me.” I said recanting my story with out too much thought into it.

“You were here with your grandpa and Beverly? What were you wearing?” John asked.

“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked, slightly put off by such a random question.

“Because I think I was here that day. This was my park. I was in charge of distribution at this park and two others.” John answered honestly.

“You were with Camero Man?” I asked a sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach.

“I wasn’t WITH Camero Man, but I know him. He was dropping off heroine. You were right to be afraid. What were you wearing?” John answered, turning in his seat to face me as I spoke.

“A yellow sweat shirt and jeans. Grandpa was in his blue work clothes like he always wears and Beverly was in a red dress and white sweater.” I answered.

“I was here. I saw you.” John answered, a dark expression falling over his face. “We all saw you. I was supposed to follow you into the woods and… take care of it.”

Those words hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity, before I next spoke.

“Take care of it, how?” I asked, this implication too grave to escape my understanding.

“Take care of it. Try to scare you, and if that didn’t work my orders were to kill you.” John answered bluntly. “To them you were just a threat, a liability. Two kids and an old man. I couldn’t do it. That was the day I walked away from that life and never went back.”

Completely overwhelmed with everything John had just dumped onto my emotional plate I heard him, but didn’t fully understand what he was saying and desperately tried to lighten the mood with: “Well, if that’s not love at first sight I don’t know what is. We were obviously meant to be together.”

So yeah… THAT is what I remembered this morning. The full weight of everything that was said/happened during that trip down memory lane with John in the very early stages of our relationship still hadn’t sank in with me until now. Older and Wiser Me is sitting here shaking my head at Young Stupid Me. I can’t believe I missed all of that the first go around.

It’s a beautiful memory if for nothing more than the fact that… well I don’t know. When I think of it I don’t think of anger at nearly losing my life, I just see a scrawny little strung out thug John who worked so hard to achieve the respect of these people by enduring his initiation, (and whatever other hell that he witnessed during his time with those people) looking at the innocence of two children who were still complete strangers and using that as a defining moment in his life. The poetic beauty that brought us back together later in life for so much more. It’s the moments like these, being able to remember them and making the connections from one seemingly random event to the next that make my PTSD amazing.

It’s also probably what makes Kevin so frustrated and pissy with me. He has moments like this too. We ended up in the food court at a mall in Dayton Ohio MILES away from either of our homes while he was working on an a/c unit at one of the food franchises and I was wasting time before my shift at a department store. He also came through the drive through at my Burger King on his way home from Kings Island a local Cincinnati theme park which my parents happen to live less than ten miles away from. Granted none of his moments are quite as intense as the moments I shared with John, but that doesn’t make them any less special. He doesn’t engage with me about them because it freaks him out that I have such a stupid accurate memory, and also that we walked by each other as strangers so many times and never even stopped to give each other a second glance yet ended up married with a kid. I mean it is pretty freakish when you think about it. How small the world really is.

It’s also moments like these where my faith in a higher power is renewed. For this many coincidences to happen over the course of my life by pure chance? Ha! I’m sure there’s some mathematical formula that says it’s x amount of percent possible for every person to run into their future parter at least so many times in a normal course of their lives, but I think it’s easier to sit back and say: “Hey. Some one had a plan for my life, and all those tiny little moments were pieces in one giant puzzle, and I can’t wait to discover where it leads me to next.”

Anyway… that’s what’s been running around in my head all day. It’s kind of a lot, but I feel better now that I’ve gotten it written down and out in the open. Thanks for listening friends.