I was in the moving company’s yard, at Mission Gorge Road and Twain Avenue, warming up the truck. Divorce moves: how I hated them. I’d seen grown adults fighting tooth and nail over a coffee table.
You see me coming up your walk. I’m wearing a jumpsuit or a shirt with a bright, perhaps somewhat indecipherable logo above the left pocket. Behind me at the curb is a truck, a huge and battered machine that looks like a battle-damaged warship. This is moving day and you are nervous and anxious. Things are hectic. Your life is being uprooted. The stability, the monotony that we humans struggle to achieve is being upset. Changes.
Your thoughts: The movers are here. I hope they don't break anything.
Still deeper thoughts: Ah, these hulks, these Neanderthals. How do I deal with them?
I have seen into your lives. I’ve been in your Serra Mesa homes, your University City condos, your Pacific Beach apartments. I’ve seen your secrets. I’ve been in your bathrooms. I’ve opened your dresser drawers and seen what you hide. I know what you eat and what you read. I’ve found the embarrassing objects you forgot to put away before I arrived. I’ve seen you in the early morning before you could wash the sleep away. I’ve seen you as perhaps even your intimate friends have not.
I’ve moved you in when you were newlyweds. You were frantic and happy, eager for me to finish so that you could lock the door and make love for the first time as husband and wife in your new home. I’ve moved you in divorce, as you played out your domestic drama in front of me with shouts and tears, shredding apart what once, years ago, built all this. Some of you have died. I’ve come into your silent rooms and, with your spirit hovering around me. I’ve boxed up your objects, your memories, the material you, and I’ve carted them away to your children’s houses or to some dusty storage place. I’ve seen your lives in disarray.
She was bron with a silver spoon in her mouth, and it was my agony to be there on the day it began to slip down her throat. Her name was Melissa. She was sixteen months old and she was the most beautiful child I had ever seen. I looked at her and I lamented the lost loves of my life and regretted the fact that I was still single. Melissa lived in emotional desolation on the northwest side of Mount Soledad. Her mother was also beautiful: thirtyish, with blond hair that fell to her shoulders in an intricately planned tousle that evoked sexuality. I knew men looked at her, as I did, and became aroused, as I was. Even neatly dressed, as she was that evening, she looked as though she had just risen from some erotic encounter. Was her child a product of some such lust? Now, though, the lust was depleted. The love, if it ever existed, was gone. I was there to take apart, to remove. It was a divorce, yet another divorce.
That day had already been a long one. It had been a long two weeks, busy and hot. San Diego was moving. It is not just the weather that attracts everyone to this town, it is the motion of the place. Beneath the ground, there are the motions we rarely feel but forever await: tremors, faults, slips, plates, all that geology. Aboveground, there are the people: forward motion, social climbing, moving across Interstate 5. (West of I-5, on the west side of Mount Soledad, that's La Jolla. East of that, they’re just dreamers.) People were playing the moving game, playing musical condos. Students shifting with the semesters, the beach places filling up in summer, relationships breaking up and re-forming. Easterners moving in, drifters, the dying go to nursing homes, the dead go — somewhere.
I can remember details of that day. The paperwork, for example. There were notes attached, always a bad sign. The first move was an elderly woman. The note said, “Possibly senile.’’ The second move was the Mount Soledad house. “Divorce. Unamiable. Accept cash only and be careful.” Dark clouds at morning.
I was in the moving company’s yard, at Mission Gorge Road and Twain Avenue, warming up the truck. Divorce moves: how I hated them. I’d seen grown adults fighting tooth and nail over a coffee table. I'd been referee, peacemaker, diplomat, cop. I was already dreading that day.
My partner is Garry. He looks like a mover, or what you expect a mover to look like. Tall, huge, brawny, and in his face a hint of the look that makes people fret about their heirlooms. From Crawford High he went to the Midwest to play for a Division 11 football power. He had distant, probably desperate dreams of playing pro ball. A knee injury put him out of football, and a year or so later he left school. Garry had been working for a couple of years with several different moving companies in San Diego, jumping around to whoever was busy and needed help at the time. The moving business is full of guys like him: ex-jocks, ditch-diggers, out-of-work carpenters, Vietnam vets. These are guys who have always led physical lives, lives of exertion. They’ve put things up, tom them down, dug, split, carried, and pushed. They like the sweat and the muscle ache at the end of the day. In San Diego the weather is good, and such work goes on all year long. They like it here.
I’ve worked with Garry before. Garry does not involve himself in the human side of this job. He does not speak to the people. The human dramas, when they occur, don’t touch him. He lifts, he carries. He doesn’t look or listen, and, quite probably, he does not care. These dramas are only an annoyance to him. On the way to the job this morning we make small talk, discussing war stories of the moving trade: the lunatics we’ve encountered, the beautiful women, the heaviest pieces of furniture.
The old woman is not senile, merely a lost soul. And she is not sour and cranky but instead cherub-faced, a Walton’s Mountain grandmother. She looks as if she should be in an apron in her kitchen, smelling of baked cookies. The house is on Euclid Avenue in East San Diego, in a section that has lost its charm. For her, a lonely old woman, it is a log cabin in Indian country. The area has become a melting pot of blacks, Chicanos, and Asians. According to her son, the pot is boiling over. There are break-ins, gang fights and rapes. So there is a role reversal: the son is now protective, as the mother was when he was a child. She has returned to a state of childlike helplessness in the face of all the neighborhood mayhem, and the son insists that she move. He doesn't like his mother going to sleep each night to the sounds of muffled shouts, squealing tires, running footfalls, and sirens. He has bought her a condo in Clairemont. A cop we once moved told us that Clairemont had some of the highest crime statistics in San Diego. I do not mention this to the son.
What we are confronted with inside the house is a life in disorganized retreat. By way of explanation or excuse, the woman tells us that since her husband passed away three years earlier, she had not kept the place up. This is an understatement. To move around the living room demands thought. No, not move — maneuver would be a better word. There is furniture. I’m sure, but it is buried beneath piles of domestic rubble. Debris, in the form of bottles, jars, ceramics, pillows, blankets, and myriad miscellaneous objects, has fallen on the room like dust. And there’s the dust, which blows up in clouds whenever we move about. There are hundreds of books and countless magazines. On some of the magazines I see the youthful faces of some now elder statesmen. Paper and photographs are strewn everywhere, reminding me of Hemingway’s description of the paper that litters a battlefield after the fighting has ended.
“Does all this go?’’ I ask.
“Everything,” the son says. “I’m going to help you pack.”
An antique-hunter’s dream and a mover’s nightmare. The other rooms of the house are much the same, and I call the office to tell them that we will be delayed for most of the day. I have them send more boxes.
Tedium. Packing away the pieces of someone else’s life. It goes slowly. And there are forces at work here. On one side, your superego. This is my job — as everyone holds some job — to be responsible and careful with each item. On the other side is the id, bored, apathetic, and convinced that each knicknack is a worthless piece of shit. Ethics, you see. A struggle. What the hell is this? I find one of those little souvenir water-filled plastic domes, the kind that when you tum them upside down and shake them, little snowflakes fall. This one is from the Statue of Liberty. Does she want it? Yes, pack it up. But first, I shake it. Snow begins to fall on the huddled masses yearning to be free.
Hours begin to pass. The room begins to clear a bit. The debris goes into cardboard boxes and out to the truck. In the midst of this, the woman rummages through her memories, talking of old and better times. For me it is sad, painful.
Garry feels nothing. He pays no attention to her. He packs up boxes, making them too heavy, and wrestles them to his shoulder and carries them to the truck. He still lifts with his back. I’ve told him a dozen times to lift with his legs. He won’t last; he’ll bum out. In a few years, his back will be shot to hell.
By virtue of some of the objects I see, plus some conversation, I discover that this woman has had an interesting life. Bron in China to missionary parents, she taught for thirty-five years both overseas and in the States. She is well-read, articulate, and intelligent. It is obvious, though, that the center of her life was her husband, and it is painfully obvious that she is crushed by his death. It is frightening to hear her speak of him. She is alive but not living. Her spirit is with him, on some distant plane not of this world.
Furniture appears from beneath the rubble, like boulders emerging from melting snow. It is old and heavy, dusty and worn. There is an old sleeper sofa, made of hardwood and steel, that weighs more than most fully loaded triple dressers. Garry and I strain to get it out the narrow doorway and up into the truck. The new sleepers are pine and aluminum; movers are thankful for progress.
With the furniture loaded and the boxes piled in, the truck is full. There are still some odds and ends in the house and the garage. We will have to come back. In Clairemont, the unloading goes fairly easily. Typically narrow doorways on the new condos present problems with the furniture. There seems to be no communication between the building and moving industries here in San Diego. The builders are going in for acute angles and narrow passageways. The furniture people are building nine-foot sofas. And guess who catches the flak when it won’t fit through your doorway?
Midaftemoon, and it's time for a break and something to eat at a deli on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. You get to know the fast-food places and hamburger joints around town. Sandwich places, taco drive-throughs, an occasional sit-down place when time permits.
You get to know a part of town, each part of town, and where to eat. Canada Steakburger on El Cajon Boulevard for gyros. New York Pizza on University. A Roberto’s in East San Diego for a came asada burrito. Linda’s Donuts in Pacific Beach for a burger, or Sluggo’s on Mission Boulevard for a hot dog.
Garry begins to talk about the women he’s met on the job. He asks me about that ones I’ve met. I reply, in general terms, that I’ve met a few. I'm unwilling to talk about them with him. (Women. Yes, there have been some. Single women move around in San Diego, too. You work enough and you keep meeting them. It becomes mathematical. Sooner or later the odds are that you ’ll meet someone with whom there is that distinctive yet invisible meshing of human chemistries, someone who sees that there is more to you than just being a human forklift, or who doesn’t care. You’ll eventually meet someone else who is lonely, sometimes, who accepts kind words, a laugh, and a smile, as a common enough ground from which to begin. It has happened. I’ve dated several, and I fell in love with one. We were together for a year, until she woke one morning and remembered that she was sleeping with her moving man.)
Garry and I return to Euclid. There are only bits and pieces remaining. The garage is cleared out. All this will be useless at the condo. Still, she wants these tools her husband used to fiddle with. In the house, we box up the last of it. I find a plastic bowl, a chewed toy — evidence of a dog. I don’t ask about it. When the old woman is out of the room, I quickly put the pet memories in a box and close it up.
We finish loading. The woman is in the house, now empty, with her son, perhaps taking her last breaths of the cool, dusty air that holds many memories. We drive away to unload the last of her things, leaving the house to its poltergeists, at the mercy of young vandals. In Clairemont the second load is quickly dropped off, and we are done. I think the woman is uncomfortable here. There is the smell of a fresh paint job, and the stark unhomeyness of this mass-produced living space. I think she longs for her dust. She won’t sleep well here. It will be hard for her to call it home.
And so, tired and sweaty, already depressed, I come up the walkway to the Mount Soledad palace where Melissa lives. I am struck by the beauty of both mother and child. Melissa’s tiny voice repeats, “Hi, hi, hi,” over and over, even though each one gets a response from me, until her mother quiets her. We are shown in. I playfully muss Melissa’s hair and speak to her. She takes to me. I offer her my hand as her mother takes us through the house to look over the items that are to be moved out. Melissa happily leads me along and repeats her mother’s words. In the hallway I pick her up and she is delighted. Husband, soon to be ex-husband, is in the closed-off study boxing up his things. Mother and Melissa will get the house for now. Selected items, haggled over by lawyers, will go with us tonight to the husband’s place of exile. No, perhaps that phrase connotes blame on mother’s part. It is not mine to judge this affair. I put Melissa down and she moans in protest; she has not been held much by her father. The drain on her is beginning.
There is no love in this house. I can sense it. I’ve been in houses where love is palpable, where there are family photos with smiles and hugs, moments of intimacy. There is an atmosphere. But here, there is a void. The air is empty, the frequencies jammed with the static of ill-feeling. The objets d’art, the knickknacks; they are extravagant, but bought with taste and without love. The furniture is tasteful, expensive, but cold. Even Garry seems to sense it. He looks uneasy here.
There are signs of what happened. His money and her looks brought them together. A merger, not a marriage. Then, in the close quarters of sharing a life, there were revelations: habits, idiosyncrasies, foibles, the way she sleeps, the way he eats. The unwanted remark, the bad joke, become daggers. The things that run deep rise and rear up. The expensive but cheaply made bonds do not hold up to such pressures.
Husband/father emerges from the study. He is grim and unfriendly. His tone with me is patronizing and instructional until I throw him a few ten-dollar words and perceptions about how things should be moved. I have established credibility and he backs off. He watches us carry his share of the world out to the truck. He has nothing for Melissa. She tries to get his attention and he is curt with her. I always try to stay neutral in these divorces, but his treatment of Melissa has made me his enemy.
This child is becoming a social statistic before my eyes. Even in Southern California, the land of the single parent, a child in a single-parent home faces troubles. There have been studies on socio-emotional development, academic performance, delinquency. Fingers point at broken homes, broken lives. Inside, both mother and father furiously puff on cigarettes. On this hilltop, with the magnificent view of the ocean, Melissa is not quite two years old and the world has become her oppressor.
On the deck out back there is expensive patio furniture. The view of the sunset is beautiful. In better times (if there were any), they sat here with friends and drank wine, watching such sunsets. Now there will be divorce, a different type of sunset. Out front, I see a neighbor watching us carry furniture to the truck. I know this area. These extractions are not rare ... the divorce rate, the moving up and down in the world, movin’ in and movin’ out. The neighbor is merely curious, not surprised.
A domestic fire fight breaks out over a cherry wood dining table. It begins tersely in legalese, the language of their agreement, but it quickly degenerates into sniping, threats, the mention of lawyers. I interrupt to remind them that they are paying me by the hour. Both are adamant. Pride is at stake, and power positions in their settlement. The husband tells me not to worry, but he has missed my point. My concern is not for their money, it is for Melissa. She has been standing beside me and watching this scene, her eyes big and filled with fear. I am watching her, wondering if she understands what she is seeing.
I tell Garry to go out and wait in the truck. I take Melissa by her tiny hand and we go to her room. Not surprisingly, no toy is missing. It is a fantasy land built by affluence. The furniture is state-of-the-art kiddie stuff. There are rainbows and a stuffed horse that is near life-size. What she brings me is an animal alphabet book. I take her in my lap and read to her, and she follows along with her tiny finger as I point to words.
“See the doggy? Can you say doggy?”
“Do-do,” she says, in her soft, dove-coo voice.
“Right. What’s this one? Cat. Cat?”
“Very good. Good girl.’’
Elephant is too hard, coming out “Ekka.’’ We sit surrounded by fuzzy bears, stuffed dogs, and a rocking horse. These beasts and pets. wonders of a world she is only barely familiar with, give her ephemeral happiness.
The guns go silent in the dining room. Mother appears, stains of tears on her face. Father has won a round. There were phone calls to lawyers, negotiations, deals. The lawyers, those mercenaries of domestic wars, have settled this small outburst. The table will go with us. Now it is over and there is strained détente.
When I leave Melissa’s room, I look back at her. She sits and smiles up at me, her tiny finger pointing to the “ekka” to draw my smile and my laugh. I manage a smile only. I am silently cursing her mother, who sheds her tears over a cherry wood table but not for her daughter. She is now impatient to have us gone, and she makes this clear. The cherry wood table goes out past her stare and into the truck. We load a few small items and are ready to leave. It is nearly full night. La Jolla Shores and Scripps Pier are merged into the shadow-darkness.
Two small moments give cause for a lift in my spirit. As we leave, father gives Melissa a hug good-bye. When I hug Melissa, there is a trace of a smile on mother’s face.
Garry and I go to a bar up in Kensington after we drop the truck back at the yard. The Homestead, where we drink, has a working-class crowd tonight. We fit in, with our jumpsuits and the sweaty look of a long day’s work. Over beers, I try to make Garry understand about Melissa. It is lost on him. Instead he makes up wild fantasies, sexual positions with Melisssa’s mother. Perhaps it is better to be like him. These moments of sadness I make for myself.