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Date: SUN 02/11/01
Page: 4
Edition: 2 STAR

What was lost in the truck

By Melissa England

Reagan said to vote with your feet, and Milwaukee seemed to be dying. Business after business was closing its doors for the last time. Being young, I thought "going out of business" sales were great buying opportunities. They came in conjunction with Dan's pay cuts, to be followed by downsizing, to be followed by 70-hour workweeks. He came home unhappy and tired most of the time.

Three Houston companies wanted to interview Dan. He had two new suits from a going-out-of-business sale and a stellar work record. He was known as a bright, well-respected CPA. We put our "doll house" up for sale, and in a down market we sold in less than 60 days. Dan's company, sorry to lose him, wished us luck - and we were off, voting across America with two young children, looking for a new slice of life.

The kids were excited as they switched back and forth, from the green woody station wagon with matching canoe I drove to the 24-foot U-Haul truck their father drove. Texas was calling with its cities of gold-paved streets. Our kids practiced saying "y'all," as opposed to their natural Fargo accent and "you guys."

The trip was long, but the anticipation mounted as the miles passed. We leaned on horns to see if there were birds hiding in amber waves of grain. We ate fast food, a treat for the kids, then 4 and 6, while Dan and I kept reaching for an emptying bottle of Tums.

On the third day we entered the Texas Panhandle and headed for Houston. Houston: land of the Houston Oilers, gas and oilmen, and more jobs than the city could fill.

I anchored a picture map on the dash of the car. "Welcome" in big red letters glared back.

The kids had fallen asleep in the back seat of the green woody when our small caravan arrived in the golden city. It was about midnight June 24, 1980.

I followed Dan down Interstate 10, off the feeder road and into a La Quinta motel parking lot. My back hurt. The last leg of the journey had been long. We were tired as we leaned against the truck watching the traffic, amazed at how alive a city could be at an hour that would have been considered the dead of night in Milwaukee.

Dan gathered our lanky golden-haired Chris, and I cuddled Cocoa to my breast as we carried them into a second-floor room. I showered, hot and soapy, and felt like a new woman. Dan followed, then we both stepped outside to watch the traffic again. We held hands. We smiled. We had made it, arrived safe and sound in the city of our future.

"Let's go to bed," I offered. "It will still be here in the morning." We each crawled into bed with a child and waited for sleep to find us.

In the morning, Dan stood dressed at the foot of my bed. He was white, just white and staring.

"Dan, what's wrong?"

"Get up," was all he said.

Out the window was . . . nothing? It took me a moment to think through it. "Did you move the truck?" I asked. He turned, his eyes watering.

"No, I didn't do anything but sleep."

Twenty-four feet of nine years of marriage was gone. Gone as if it had not made a 1,200-mile trip, gone as if it hadn't taken two days to pack, gone as if it had never existed.

I was vaguely aware that I didn't feel anything. I dressed, and together we walked around the parking lot as if we had just misplaced the truck. Dan was having chest pains, and his usual response to that was anger. This time was no exception. In the lobby of the hotel we called the police.

Ours was one in a series of 12 thefts, full trucks from up north. The cop was rude. He was a native, he assured us, and this kind of thing didn't happen before we got here. All Yankee trucks, he muttered, probably stolen by Yankees.

Dan was beside himself, raging against the injustice, the theft and now this cop.

A fire-safe chest in the truck held $3 ,000. Two new suits held the information about the job interviews. The rest was the market value of nine years of marriage and children.

"Get in the car," Dan said. "We're going home."

We had no phone calls to make, but I made them anyway. My stepmother, Sylvia, told me God stole the truck to teach me to be humble. I hung up. Dan's mother was drunk. I hung up while she was telling us where else we could look for the truck. It was just us, starting again.

I reached for Dan's hand. "We'll make it work. Maybe the truck will be found." He ripped his hand from mine.

A girl from the lobby said a TV crew was on its way. Our story would be told on the 5 o'clock news. Dan growled. No, he spat. No one was cashing in on us. There was nothing I could do. Dan was beyond rage, screaming into the tree-lined lot about how the world would see how he had failed his family. I went back to the kids.

They woke with stars in their eyes about the new city. Today we were supposed to find the three-bedroom apartment we had rented. Today we would meet new friends in a swimming pool. Today . . . The paperwork for the apartment was on the dash of the truck.

Think, I told myself, clearing my head. Mary, St. Mary's, something like that, and there was an elementary school next door. I called an apartment locator and gave her the only description I could remember. When she realized it wasn't about leasing something, she put me on hold and never returned.

I didn't like Houston. I didn't like the indifference, the coldness. The TV crew arrived, and someone said we were a good-looking family, that it would "play well." Dan started walking down the freeway. I gathered the kids and remaining few things, paid the bill and picked up my husband.

In the quiet of the car, Dan said he couldn't live here. Very quietly, he told me he wanted to go home. Even more softly, I asked him where that would be. The house was sold. His job was over. His mother was still drunk. And I had no family - just ask them. He lay his head back and closed his eyes.

At a gas station I asked about an apartment next to an elementary school. Amazingly, a fresh-faced kid smiled and said it was minutes from where we were, off St. Mary's. I pulled into the Yorkshire Apartments.

A redhead asked me what she could "do me for." I told her I had lost the paperwork but we had preleased a three-bedroom apartment almost a month ago. Did she have our names? She did. I was relieved to know I was in the right place. I asked if other apartments were available; she said yes. I explained how our things had been stolen. I showed her the police paperwork and case number. She stopped me. She said if we weren't taking the apartment, they were keeping the two months' rent. Again I felt nothing. Maybe because it sounded so much like my childhood. I just continued.

No, I need an apartment, I assured her, just not the big one. We had nothing to move into it. I spoke slowly and deliberately. Dan was still in the car, and I didn't want him to come in.

I tried again. With her gum popping, she told me she could give me another apartment but that would be another two months' rent. A tear surprised my cheek, and I quickly whipped it away. I told her I had no money, that she had the $1,500 rent and the $1,500 deposit, and I had nothing to move into the apartment. We wanted something smaller. The only furniture we had was two sleeping bags. She said it wasn't her problem and wanted to know if I was going to sign for my keys. I signed for the keys, and minutes later we opened the door to six empty rooms. Dan found one and pulled the door shut.

The kids were giddy. They saw the pool and other kids. Could they go? We had no suits. No towels.

Dan had curled up against the wall in what I supposed was the master bedroom. I lay against him and wrapped my arms around him. He was staring at the wall. "Dan" - my numbness was wearing off - "Dan," I asked, "what are we going to do?" He turned slowly, arms tight to himself. He said he didn't know. He didn't know what I was going to do, and then he turned away again.

I took the kids to Target, got swimsuits and towels, and brought them back. Their giggling assured me we were going to make it. At least we weren't hurt. It was just things, I kept telling myself. In the office I asked the crusty redhead for the phone. She shoved it at me. I called our insurance company. We'd had homeowners' for the last nine years. Were we still covered? He would have to call back. Could I show receipts of what we owned? I can't repeat my reply.

Nine months later the insurance company decided a 24-foot truck must have had something in it, and we were issued a check for $9,000.

I got a job as a receptionist with a real-estate company, making twice what I had earned as a substitute high school teacher in Milwaukee.

The day the lease expired we bought a little house.

The kids became excellent swimmers.

Three months later my 4-year old asked if she could have her bike back, because she had been really good. We replaced bikes, beds, sofas, TVs and toys.

We never replaced the "safe" feeling.

Dan never got over it. He quit jobs, lost jobs and read maps of other places to live. He stayed home for years at a time.

I never replaced china or silver or jewelry. I couldn't remember if I ever really wanted those things.

In another nine years I filed for divorce.

In another two Dan committed suicide.

Both the kids suffered thefts of their own. Afterward they went through a series of emotions and then moved on. On Chris's 16th birthday he was given a black leather jacket, one he had wanted for almost a year. The first day he wore it, it was stolen. I felt a familiar chill travel down my spine.

In an antiques shop, I spotted a rhinestone and silver heart exactly like one I had been given as a teen-ager. For $16 it was mine again. In the car I looked at it glitter on my neck, and a feeling started in my stomach, and traveled up through my chest and into my head. I cried, remembering the things I couldn't have back: pictures of my parents, baby shoes, a diamond heart necklace, pillows embroidered by a tender grandmother. I remembered my high school sweetheart, the one who became my husband, telling me I was so cold, so unfeeling because I hadn't cried about the theft.

June 1980 was a rough time to move to Houston, a hard turn in the road. Twenty years later I still call Houston home. I've had an opportunity to manage a business, to develop marketable skills, to raise my children in a world so different from the place of their birth. I've had a chance to build a family. This family takes my phone calls in the middle of the night. This family loves me. My circle of friends is healing for me. The kids still shine. They have both moved to different cities, following their careers, and they have both come home.

I learned to stand on my own, really my own, with no pretense or denial. I learned to love what this slice of life has brought me. I did start again, and again, and still I stood.

I met a Southern boy, and I married him.

I own a few things that I would miss, such as brilliant stained-glass windows, but the truth is, I don't own many. In the event of fire or theft, I'd feel bad only for a moment.

In June 1980 I lost a great deal, but it wasn't in the truck. What matters is the people in life, the love, the real, honest feeling of coming home. Texas called us, initiated us with fire, and we stayed. Somewhere in the next few years, new wedding bells will ring, and some blessed new life will call me Grandma. Nothing really important was lost in the truck.