Pulling Up Stakes

Fueled by hope and kerosene, a down-and-out family embarks on an unforgettable camping trip

| Utne Reader March / April 2007

The eviction notice arrives in the mail, just like any other bill or letter. That night, when my parents have a spare moment, one of them will open it and read it and then read it again. It doesn't matter that they've got three kids and a broken-down car and Dad is only sort of working and sort of trying to be an artist; it doesn't matter that it's the middle of the school year and they've always paid the rent on time and kept the place relatively quiet and clean. It's just that the building has been sold, and the new owners want to live in the third-floor flat we call home.

We visit courtrooms, stalling. My father does not have a suit or tie, so he puts on his least-paint-stained shirt and pants and takes one or two of us kids with him downtown to plead his case. But it's no use. Soon enough we are packing up boxes and loading them into the blue Ford pickup with the homemade wooden camper on the back. It's a sunny, cool June day in San Francisco. School just let out for summer, and the neighborhood is saturated with children and noise. Upstairs my mother is packing our belongings into boxes, which we kids will then carry down the stairs so Dad can load them onto the truck the right way, the way that doesn't waste space or break anything. We have moved several times now, but we are not getting any better at it. Mom is running behind with the packing, so Dad has to wait on the street with the truck double-parked. My brothers, who are 6 and 11, and I, 9, sit on the stoop listening to the chorus of kid sounds emanating from the schoolyard: the thwack of the bat hitting a ball; the thump of the basketball against the backboard; the angry trill of voices arguing over fair or foul.

My father sighs and looks up at the traffic he's disrupting. 'Why don't you go help your mother,' he says to us.

It's not exactly a command, but neither is it a question. I run up the staircase, and in the kitchen I find my mother frantically emptying shelves of dishes into boxes. 'Is he ready for another one?' she asks, her face framed by thin bangs and feather earrings. 'Uh, yeah,' I say, trying to sound casual. When Dad gets mad, Mom gets nervous. She moves faster, but accomplishes less. To preserve some semblance of peace, I've got to get boxes packed and down the stairs. 'Just shove that stuff in there, Mom,' I say, piling plates into a box.

'But some of it is coming with us and some is staying,' she explains. These boxes and our furniture will go to a friend's garage. Then we will load the rest, plus some camping gear, into the homemade camper and face the truck brazenly to the north, toward optimism. The plan is to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and look for Land-my father pronounces this word as if it were a proper noun-so we can get out of the city, escape the corner of Sixteenth and Sanchez, and live a better life in the country.

We kids don't know much about the plan; we're not supposed to ask too many questions. If we do, my father will sigh, take a drag off his cigarette, and look away, disappointed again. It's not clear how much of the plan even my mother knows, though surely they have discussed it late at night after we have gone to bed. Perhaps it was these discussions that caused some of those muffled bangs and raised voices that seeped through the walls and into our bedrooms, infiltrating our dreams. We'd wake up in the morning to find a broken ashtray, the kid-size table turned upside down, chairs strewn about the living room as if left there by the tide.

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