I was a latchkey kid.
I was self reliant.
I wasn’t afraid of the emptiness of home.
We’d barge through the foyer shouting, bickering,
Flip on the TV, fill the clock ticking silence with sound.
Noise as a way of forgetting you're alone.
I could do what I wanted
I liked being alone
I could run and shout,
Boss my little sisters
Pound the basketball against the cement,
Chuck a tennis ball against a cinder block wall
That had a strike zone chalked in the middle,
At least until mom got home
And had to take her nap.
I preferred being alone.
I didn’t wear the key around my neck
Dangling from a red yarn necklace
Like some scarlet letter of abandonment.
I stuck it bare under the front porch mat.
We were poor and unaccomplished and white.
Mom did her best.
She worked and went to school
And on Sundays made giant platters
Of food meant to last all week.
Ragu spaghetti, pots of powder mix chili, tuna casseroles
Tin bowls of raspberry jello, halibut stenciled with soft white bones
Frozen peas, tater tots, chalky lima beans.
A Lutheran pastor brought groceries once a month,
The one chance we had to eat the good stuff
Like Pringles and Cheetos,
Like Frosted Flakes and Count Chocula
Instead of the usual off-brand Cheerios
You had to scoop from a plastic bag.
I had a special token for school lunches
All through middle school.
Green for reduced, red for free.
I kept mine in my pocket until the last minute
So no one would see.
But the lunch lady always made me show
When it was my turn to pay.
Later on, I packed my own lunch.
Ate salami with cheese
Enfolded in a slice of wheat.
A browning banana, a baggie of mini pretzels,
An oatmeal cream pie smashed flat.
Counselors called me out of class
To discuss my adjustments
To living in a “broken home”.
But it wasn’t broken, I told them.
The walls were solid,
Our roof never leaked.
Winter air may have gusted through our windows
But none of them were cracked.
Maybe they saw the fissures in me.
We went to JC Penny in downtown Massillon every fall
For wool sweaters and corduroy pants.
My winter coat was a second hand Oakland Raiders job
That didn’t quite fit and smelled
Like I’d been zipped inside an old church closet.
Sometimes we got hand me down
Toys from the Burgess boys
(Friends of my moms before the divorce)
Who played hockey and baseball
And had a pool in their backyard
And all the things I ever wanted,
Like a cool mom who laughed a lot and swore
And had snacks on plates waiting after school.
One Christmas I got Scott's
Old talking robot
That I used to covet.
But I found I liked it better
When it wasn't my own.
Other kids I knew had Intellivision or Atari,
Foosball, bumper pool,
Ping pong tables in the garage,
Weight sets in the basement,
Bedrooms walls laced with baseball pennants
Signed posters of Mike Eruzione
Model airplanes and action figures on shelves.
And cable TV with millions of channels.
I never had anyone over.
I didn’t want anyone to see my own bare walls
The paucity of toys and gadgets
Or the TV set with the rabbit ears and broken dials,
The way I had to use pliers to change the channels.
When a pack of neighborhood boys rode by on bikes
I ran inside in case they thought of stopping
And interrupting my secret solo games.
I hid and peered from behind the curtains
Until they turned the corner and were gone.
I was responsible.
I was in charge.
I yelled at my sisters
To finish their chores.
When darkness fell
I turned the porch lights on
And locked all the doors.
I was the latchkey kid
Who grew up to be a latchkey man
Carrying around a ring of keys
That unlocked all the doors
To lonesome secret places
Sheltering all I came to love.