Impressions from a Certain Spot in the Alley by Jim Terr
Impressions from a Certain Spot in the Alley
by Jim Terr
I’ve always been fascinated by Freud’s concept of “screen memory,” ever since I heard it sometime in my late 20s. The idea is that if you’re trying to think of an event that was traumatic for you, too painful to actually remember, that what comes to mind is whatever visual image preceded it. Which could be a wall, a tree, a doorknob — anything that you saw just prior to the event. Hence a visual “screen.”
Whenever I think about writing about what I feel was my relatively boring, uneventful, rather cushy life, I always picture a certain spot in the alley behind our house in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I was raised from age 10 through high school — and where I’m living once again. (Yes, Las Vegas, New Mexico, a pretty, midwestern-looking town of about 15,000; the original “Vegas,” founded in 1835).
It occurred to me just the other day that this alley view might be a “screen memory” covering up something too painful to remember, related to that spot. So I figured I’d write about it, about everything I can associate with it, til perhaps something concrete pops up.
As background, our family of seven moved to Las Vegas from an even prettier town, Charlevoix “The Beautiful,” Michigan. I remember clearly the night my parents sat us three older children down and announced that we were going to move to New Mexico, which I’m sure I had never heard of. My dad described the town in his very methodical way. He said it was in the mountains…!
I immediately pictured sleepwalking and falling off a cliff. I had never sleepwalked as far as I know, but this now provides a clue that I had an anxious personality of some sort, and a vivid imagination. He then said there was a river running through the middle of town. I pictured the truly scary boat channel that ran through our town from Lake Michigan to Lake Charlevoix, and falling in and drowning! (See above self-psychoanalysis).
We arrived in Las Vegas in two cars on July 4, 1958, to an empty house because the moving company had failed to bring our furniture and stuff on schedule. I laid down on the itchy purple carpet with the most intense headache I ever remember, while my family joined the Taichert family across the street for their July 4 barbecue. (Seven more people? No problem!) The fact that we ended up across the street from one of the few other Jewish families in town was just a bonus, and we remained close, pretty much intermingled, for years. We stayed in a motel for a week until the furniture arrived.
As for the headache, I suspect it was due to the trauma of leaving my beloved green forests and beaches of Michigan for a town that, while midwestern looking, was still New Mexico — comparatively hot and dry.
Years later, my dad told me the story of how we happened to move there: He was a physician in Charlevoix, a little tourist town. In the winter, the tourists went back home to Chicago and Detroit, and the town’s population was almost halved, making it even harder for my dad to support a family of seven in a town with a surplus of doctors.
He claimed that he put an ad in a medical magazine saying only “Situation Wanted” (he was a man of few words). One of the responses he got was a letter from the wife of a Dr. Dellinger in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which he felt was unusually well-written and well-organized, laying out clearly the opportunity for a partnership with Dr. Dellinger, and describing the town. My dad appreciated clear, organized writing.
He said that he and my mom both had a bleak impression of New Mexico, having only driven through on Route 66, so were not interested, but he showed the letter to a friend of theirs who was a private pilot, only because it was such a well-written letter. This pilot friend said oh, I know that town; it’s pretty, not what you’d expect for New Mexico. On that basis, they arranged to visit and check it out.
They arrived on a snowy day in May (as they say about northern New Mexico, if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes), and they liked Dr. and Mrs. Dellinger and that they were offering, they liked the pretty, multi-cultural, bilingual town and the fact that it had a university, which they felt made for a better school system. I don’t regret their decision; it’s been a fascinating place to live and to grow up.
My childhood in Las Vegas was uneventful on one level, but of course with more than my share of inner turmoil. I had only one friend, and we spent hours walking and playing in the alleys that ran all through the town. The alleys were a whole ‘nother world, sort of an underworld for us. And I spent much of the rest of my time speeding around town on my bike, playing with my Erector set and other gadgets, making things in the basement, and shooting my pellet pistol from my second-story bedroom window.
Whose crazy idea it was go give me a pellet pistol I don’t know. But one of my main targets was — aha! cats — right over in that alley area I picture now. I don’t recall whether I hit any, since it was a difficult shot of about 100 feet, but I think I did. I may have even killed some; I never checked.
Years later I wrote a poem, which spans two events both before and after this time:
Two Birds I Shot
Two birds I shot at different times
In different worlds, in different climes,
They haunted me in different ways
And yes, I think, for years, not days.
The first in northern Michigan
I must have been – well, not yet 10.
A robin hopped in front of me
While I was doing archery.
At 30 feet I aimed and drew
And shot the little fellow through.
I ran him home and screamed a bunch,
(My dad just home from work, for lunch.)
Mom said “Please do something, dear.
Jimmy’s going crazy here.
Can’t you give the bird a shot?”
(Cuz Daddy was, you see, a doc.)
He probably took it out the back
And gave that bird a final whack.
(With possibly a tinge of pride
That I had nailed him in the side.)
Fast forward to New Mexico.
Now 30 or 40 years ago.
I used to go out hunting dove
(Yes, you heard right – the bird of love)
With no idea what I was doing
So I did not cut short much cooing.
But one day I brought down a hawk.
He fell to earth without a squawk.
A neighbor into taxidermy
Mounted him quite nicely fer me.
And so he stared at me for years.
(If I had doubts, I did not hear.)
Only now I feel disturbed
And wonder how his look reverbed
Inside my skull. And so I wonder
If he still does drag me under.
So I suspect that I felt guiltier about shooting cats than I realized at the time, in my Little Cowboy mode.
In thinking about writing this essay, I realized that my other memory surrounding that spot in the alley is very much related: We had a friend, a contemporary of my older brother and sister, whom I’ll call Andy here. Andy was old enough to drive, and he had a fun game called “ditchem.” The idea was that two cars would chase each other, mostly through alleys, at night, with the lights off, the lead car trying to ditch the pursuing one.
Andy took me on a couple of these rides, and of course in retrospect it’s amazing we didn’t have any wrecks. But another element of the game, at least for Andy, was that he would try to run over scared dogs and cats running ahead of us, for “points.”
Again, I can’t remember clearly whether he succeeded while I was with him, but if it bothered me at the time I stuffed it in the interest of playing the game.
So you see, in writing this story I stumbled across two now-painful memories of animal cruelty which I associated with that spot in the alley, which I never thought of til now, and which might explain why that scene comes to mind so often.
An update on that feeling of stuffing painful emotions: The summer after my second year of college I had a job shooting news footage for a TV station in Albuquerque on weekend nights. The “news” on weekend nights consisted almost entirely of car wrecks, fires, and other emergencies. I would doze at the TV station with an ear out for the proper police codes for these events and, hearing one, would load the movie camera (yes, film, not video!) and lights into the car and go get my footage. I saw many painful things, including fatal wrecks and even a stabbing, and dutifully filmed them without letting them bother me — which would have interfered with the job.
Only after getting away from that job, and for years later, did the terror of what I saw come seeping up every time I would see a wreck, even from a great distance. Such is the nature of buried pain and terror. Which is why I have infinite sympathy for combat veterans, police, fire fighters, and emergency workers who have seen more and worse.