Plans for Happiness
I’m eleven and living in Springfield, Virginia, which is like saying I live in a place held together with cardboard and glue, an architect’s idea of what small town Connecticut might look like, minus the robber barons.
Here, politicians and rednecks abound. One of the latter, we rent a rambling Colonial with green shag carpeting and crumbling silk wallpaper. The backyard is smothered in crabgrass and slopes into a state park where I spend whole afternoons hiking down to the shallow water everyone calls “Dead Man’s Creek” because it’s rumored a man was found there dead, but mainly because everyone wants to add some excitement to this boring commuter pit-stop twelve miles downstream from the nation’s capital.
I don’t blame the suburbanites for wanting their very own urban legend, but I do love DC. In the summer I wake at 5:00 to carpool into the city with my mom and stepdad. One of my favorite things to do is troll the sidewalk outside the underground mall where yellow caution tape hangs, imagining the man who was shot there while shopping for a new pair of sneakers.
I also hang out in Lafayette Park, across the street from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs where my mom and stepdad work. I’m sitting at the fountain when a homeless man hisses “You little bitch,” in such an undertone I know he’s discovered my secret, the one I try and hide from my new friends in my new town. I am ugly, and mean. And ugly and mean don’t belong in Springfield and so I smile at everyone and dredge up the fake southern charm learned in North Carolina, where I was born. I compliment the kids at school when they wear brand new Vans and pretend not to mind when one of my classmates lifts my sweater to check the label on my jeans. Inside, I seethe. The man is right: I’m a bitch.
I dread leaving the city, coming back to Springfield. Nothing ever happens here that comes close to the underground mall shooting or the man at the park calling me a bitch. Though once it was rumored a woman was decapitated when the car she was driving rolled off the road, flipping over three times before smashing into a tree. She was on her way to pick up her daughter’s birthday cake, or to get some flour and eggs to make the cake herself. My new friends talk long into the night about the accident, arguing over how far the woman’s head was from the car when the police found it or how fast she was going when she lost control. But no one is more shocked than me. She was going to make her daughter a cake for her birthday? Wow!
Our new neighborhood has streets named Fox Run, Cottontail and Antelope Place. I imagine hunters on horseback, red jackets and black boots, rioting through open meadows and forests that are now home to chemical sprayed lawns and two car garages because no one is allowed to park their cars in the street. A good thing, my stepdad informs me, since otherwise we’d look like a third world country. I don’t know what a third world country is but my stepdad, who served in Vietnam, does. Up the road is a pizza place owned by a man made famous for executing at point-blank range a Vietcong soldier. A nearby thrift store has on display a famous black and white photograph that shows Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s bullet exiting the skull of Nguyen Van Lem.
“I think Buddha will forgive me,” Nguyen Ngoc Loan said after Nguyen Van Lem died and the photo depicting his execution was taken up in the arms of protestors around the world.
We eat Pizza Hut or Godfather’s and in the basement of our new house my stepdad sits on the floor sucking juice from oranges and watching Vietnam War movies for weeks at a time.
“That’s where I was,” he tells me, when Full Metal Jacket comes on. “That’s exactly what it is was like.”
When the movies finish playing he smashes my mom’s favorite lamp, tosses the lawnmower into the street. We live in the suburbs, where nothing ever happens. Our town isn’t a town at all, but someone’s idea of what a town might be if it were to exist right here, where I’m flat on my mattress with a pillow over my head, waiting for the silence that sinks into the house after my stepdad finishes yelling at my sister and me for being stupid and lazy.
“I’m sorry,” he says, with a shrug. “It’s the war. It messed me up. It did.”
My stepdad keeps a live hand grenade in his trunk.
“Okay, girls,” says Mom, worrying a hand through hair streaked gray since she left my father. Tomorrow she’ll take us for ice cream and I’ll come home with a pink bedspread and matching shams, plus three Beverly Clearly books, one of which I already own. “Time for bed.”
We peel back our bedspreads, slide between crisp new sheets. Go to sleep, safe in this house that sits alongside a hundred other plans for happiness hanging behind glass on the wall of the architect’s office.
JANET FREEMAN lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her award-winning work has appeared in numerous online and print journals such as PANK, Monkeybicycle, Cottonwood and Breakwater Review. She can be found online at: janetfreeman.com.