I grew up on a dead end street called Howard Drive, and when I was three years old I would drive my plastic red jeep past the sleepy yellow house next door and turn around where the pavement stopped. There were only eight or so houses on the street, and most of them were filled with families, home to married couples with dogs and children and cats. Their yards were always in motion.
Tracey and Ed lived kiddy-corner from us, across the street. They had a son, Connor, who was about my age, and every night we’d each stand at our front doors and squash our cheeks up against the screens, pressing fine checkerboards into our skin. “Is Connor outside?” I would ask my mom as I toddled toward the door, my eyes already searching for a playmate.
Karen lived on our left, in that sleepy little house. The house had been her parents’ and, an only child, Karen had moved back in to take care of them when they got sick. She never married, though she was kind, and had to have been pretty enough. She had a slight frame, fragile in her old age, with soft wrinkles on her skin. Her hair came to her shoulders, tawny brown and wispy, but straight.
She lived alone, her property butted up against the field at the end of the street. The field seemed to stretch for miles, home to tall grasses and weeds that swayed in the wind. Somewhere, on the other end of the open land sat a prison—the Coxackie Correctional Facility. We couldn’t see it from our street, but everyone knew it was there. I imagined scruffy-faced criminals running through the field, escaping from their cells only to find themselves trapped on our peaceful little dead end street.
The prison field was empty, bare, but at the edge of Karen’s property line, everything felt full again. Tall oaks towered in her front lawn, and a fence surrounded her backyard. Thick maroon shutters hung over her sunny siding, radiating comfort.
There were plenty of other kids on the street. The children on the corner left toys scattered across their lawn—bicycles with the wheels still spinning and a bouncing red kickball. There had to have been at least ten of them by the amount of toys they left out. My mom operated a daycare out of our white, ranch-style house, and parents dropped their kids off at our door every morning. I was an only child at the time, though it never felt like it.
But despite all of the other sticky-faced toddlers running around, I was Karen’s favorite. She didn’t have any grandchildren, so I became an honorary granddaughter. She played games with me and gave me baskets full of pastel candies and little bunnies at Easter time. In the summer, she’d call out through the fence and I’d slip through the rickety brown gate on the side of the house.
Visiting Karen was like going on an adventure. Her yard was a maze of raised flower beds and potted plants, all reaching up to the sky and teetering over my three-year-old head. She was usually outside, trowel in hand, digging in her garden of snakelike vines and clutter. I helped her plant vegetables and flowers, my little fingers sifting through sun-warmed dirt until she sent me home at the end of the day, cheeks stained brown with mud.
Inside, Karen’s house always felt snug, like a tangle of plush blankets you could climb into and get lost in. My imagination fills it with stacks of boxes and old furniture, many of them antique and bulky. Smoothly carved wooden chair legs poked out into narrow walkways and heavy armoires towered toward the ceiling. It was warm, if dusty, and in my head we sat at a hefty wooden coffee table decorated with an age-tinted lace doily and ate cookies from the oven.
Sometimes she’d let me bake them with her, and I chattered on about the other kids at the daycare, and how we’d race in circles around our basement and Mom would yell at us to stop running. Karen listened patiently, humming quietly to herself. “Oh, really?” she’d say as she lifted me up onto a stool so I could reach the mixing bowl.
Karen had three or four cats, meandering about the house and climbing atop thick pillows. Sometimes a long-haired white cat would curl up next to me on the sofa and I would giggle. I liked to rub my fingers through their fur.
I didn’t realize how lonely Karen must have been, trapped between ever-growing families and a barren field.
When her parents died, Karen stayed in the house. I used to think it was big; my child eyes saw everything far grander than it really was. An old-style silver car sat in her driveway, and she drove back and forth from Albany every day, heading to and from her job as a clerk at the county DMV.
She couldn’t have made much and was probably paid by the hour, but it never stopped her from bringing me new things. Every week or two I’d get a pretty pink dress or a patterned shirt. Karen would stop in the stores on her drive home from work, just browsing, and find something perfect for me.
“I just had to get it. I couldn’t help myself,” she’d say, her frail hands clasped at her chest, as she told my mother how she’d pictured me in it, running around our patch of yard. Thanks to Karen, I always had more clothes than I needed.
When I mention Karen now, Mom tells me she was a hoarder. When she said she couldn’t help herself she meant she really couldn’t. She used to keep all kinds of trinkets piled up in her house, and alongside them were shopping bags, filled to the brim with clothing with the tags still on. She bought things to make herself feel good again, and I wonder if that was her way of finding comfort, of filling the holes that people couldn’t.
But at three years old I didn’t realize what the adventurous maze she’d made of her home really meant. Where I saw silly knick-knacks and musty stacks of paper, Karen had seen memories.
I like to imagine that maybe she’d had someone, a handsome lover with deep brown hair and green eyes that flashed in the sunlight. They’d met at college and spent their afternoons studying on the green, lying in the grass with their textbooks splayed open. When he tired of whatever it was that he was reading he’d lean over, bumping her on the shoulder and nuzzling his face into the crook of her neck. She was twenty. They were in love. He would have married her, and they’d have spent their lives raising dark-haired babies in a pale blue house with a white picket fence.
But then Karen’s parents got sick and she had rushed home, an ever dutiful daughter. Perhaps she was only supposed to be gone for a week, then two, until finally she was dropping all of her courses and moving back in at home. He would have waited for her at first, occasionally making the long trip to Howard Drive to kiss her exhausted cheeks and ask if he could help. But exam season arrived and the visits grew farther apart.
I imagine he’d called, the phone ringing on the wall in the kitchen, Karen at the stove, worn and sagging. Strands of hair fell over her eyes as she reached for the receiver.
“Hey, love,” he said. “How are things?”
Karen would have leaned back against the door frame, her fingers fiddling with the long white phone cord. “All right,” she answered. “Mom’s doing a bit better. She made it out to the porch.”
“That’s great.” his voice echoed in her ear. From the living room, Karen’s father called out. He needed more water.
On the phone, he still would have been talking, telling her how glad he was that her mother’s doing well, how maybe she can get back to school for the spring semester. “Sorry,” she told him. “I—Dad’s calling. I’ve got to get going.”
“I understand,” he told her. “I miss you.”
She was already gone.
Eventually, the phone calls slowed, then stopped. He didn’t visit anymore. He was too busy moving forward, while Karen was standing still.
So she stayed in her parents’ house, baking cookies and tending her gardens, and every day she drove down to Albany to sit in a white-washed building and stare out a glass window at angry drivers leading lives just as empty as her own.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to Karen, if she ever escaped her boxy yellow house on Howard Drive. We moved away when I was five, but we stopped by once after that, just passing through. When we took the familiar turn onto Howard Drive, I hardly recognized our house. The new owners had ripped the leafy green bushes under the front windows out by their roots. Mom was devastated. They’d even put in one of those garden globes Mom hated—the kind that sat atop a conical ceramic pillar, and was all the rage in the early 2000s.
Mom parked the car to go knock on Karen’s door. No one answered.
I wonder if she still lives there, if she still shares a view with the prisoners, looking out over opposite ends of that empty field. She had enough in common with them, sentenced to life at the end of Howard Drive.
Eventually, everyone must have left her. Tracey and Ed gave Connor a little sister, Casey, and moved two streets over, into a larger neighborhood. The front lawn on the corner was empty, no more bicycles or signs of playtime. I still don’t know how many kids they had.
I like to think that new families moved in, moms and dads with curious little kids who gave life to Howard Drive. They’d visit Karen, baking cookies and playing with her cats. In the summer, she’d teach them how to plant flowers in her garden. And when she’d come home from work, she’d bring them gifts, soft blue hats and striped socks they could wear to sleep.
Sometimes I wonder if Karen still remembers me, the little blonde girl who left. I wonder why she chose me, what she saw in me. If she thought maybe someday I’d be lonely, too.
At twenty, I’m the same age now I imagined Karen was when everything fell apart. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that life is unpredictable. I didn’t expect my parents to get divorced, or my stepdad to fight a war. I didn’t expect my mother would develop breast cancer, the tumor in her chest growing from nothing to the size of a baseball in less than two months. But it happened. It all happened.
Karen feels like love—like warmth and comfort and someone who cares. But she is also fear. Fear because at twenty I still don’t know where I’m going. There are so many roads in the world, some that wind and curve and others that roll on for miles. But for every road that keeps going there’s another one that ends.
I’m not ready to be trapped.
When I think back to that time, three years old on Howard Drive, I imagine Karen as I knew her, heading home after a long shift at work. As she drove, she thought about how she couldn’t quite see the holes in her life, but somehow she knew that there wasn’t enough to fill them. She was stuck, and she knew she needed more, so she took the exit ramp at the mall, slid her credit card at the register and brought a pair of shiny new shoes home to the little girl next door.
“On Howard Drive” was first published by Black Fox Literary Magazine in February 2016.