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An Excerpt from ‘Home Was a Dream’

Home Was a Dream opens with Tim Green narrating in the first person, in the present (2010) as he does in Believe in Me and Never Break the Chain. With chapter 1, the narrative shifts to his father Bernie, back in 1962, age nine. Soon after we meet Bernie, we encounter his stern father Max. This excerpt includes the complete introductory section (each of these prelude/interludes in the present is titled “Home”) and the first part of chapter 1.


* * * * * * * * * *


Tim / 2010

We think we know our parents, but we’re wrong.

We imagine that spending our childhood with them gives us a window into their hearts and minds, and this is true up to a point, but it’s also true that we’re missing more information than we possess. By the time we arrive, we’ve already missed out on the entire span of years that shaped and molded them into the person we then observe through the eyes of a child. The time we do spend in close contact with them—two decades, give or take—then plays out within the infinitely distorting crucible of parent and child. To us, our mothers and fathers were always adults, always parents, always in a position of responsibility and authority.

The parents we construct in our minds are like avatars, exaggerated cartoon figures whose world does not obey the normal laws of physics. We hear about their lives prior to our birth mostly in stories they tell, stories that are inevitably refracted through the trapdoors of memory, redacted for an underaged audience, and colored by the demands of ego. Our real parents—those life-sized, flesh and blood, inevitably flawed human beings—are nearly invisible to us as children, hidden behind an infinite series of Kabuki masks, inside an endless sequence of Russian nesting dolls. They are, in many respects, strangers. Warm and familiar ones, if we’re lucky—but strangers all the same.

My name is Tim Green. Two years ago my father died, the only parent I had ever known, and losing him set me adrift like a satellite losing orbit and spinning out into the void. I spent most of my twenty-eighth year ducking and covering while the five stages of grief pummeled me black and blue. In time, I managed to let go, only to transfer a lot of that energy into searching for my mother, a woman who was little more than a rumor to me until after my father had passed. When I found her, she truly was a stranger, albeit one who managed to fill in a few of my blanks before disappearing again.

Even now, so many of those blanks remain unfilled. As a child, for better or for worse, my father was everything to me: sun, moon and stars. But did I truly know him? I don’t see how I could say that I did when I still can’t understand how he came to the most important decision of—I was about to say his life, but I can’t really even say that for sure. What I know is that the decision he made that day was the most important one of my life.

When I was two months old, my mother knocked on the door of my father’s apartment and thrust me into his arms. Before he opened the door, he hadn’t known I existed. Two days later he took me in and gave me the only home I would ever know.

Keep in mind, this was November 1980 and my dad, Bernie Green, was twenty-seven and single, a writer for a national music magazine whose job kept him out late at concerts—he’d met my mother at one the previous New Year’s Eve—and traveling around the western U.S. for days at a time. If he’d started the Northern California Single Dad Music Writers’ Club, he might have been the only member.

I’ve wondered so many times what went through his mind in that moment when he opened his front door to find me waiting in my mother’s arms. We had tiptoed around the subject a few times, but he would always brush it off like it was nothing, like it was simply to be expected that he would take me in. Leaving me to wonder, again and again: once he got past the initial shock, once he processed the three-dimensional reality of the baby being held out to him—his child, his son—by a woman he barely knew, how did he get from there to saying yes? Yes, I want to take this carefree nomad’s life I’ve been living, tear it down to the studs and start over, rebuilding it around a tiny, helpless human being for whom I have total responsibility.

Fatherhood was thrust on him, yes, but it was also a choice he made. I’m honestly not sure I could have made the same one. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true. And maybe a few times over the years I’ve resented Dad a little for that—that degree of selflessness and certainty that still feels out of my grasp—but mostly I’m just curious. What was it about his life up to that point that compelled him to say yes? Was I an obligation he couldn’t refuse? A dream he’d thought still lay in the future? Or something else entirely?

I’ve asked myself these questions before, but never with the kind of urgency they carry today. I don’t just want to understand what Dad was thinking back then—I need to.

Dad has been gone for almost two years now. And I’m almost done packing up the house I grew up in, to rent it out while my fiancée Terry Valenzuela and I drive half the length of California to a Los Angeles apartment to be closer to my half-siblings, my wayward mother’s other children. After twenty years as best friends, last year Terry and I took the leap into a romantic relationship, and then two months ago got engaged, on a whim, Saturday morning pillow talk that had taken a turn.

This both delighted and terrified me.

Delighted, because I’ve loved Terry almost as long as I’ve known her and when we finally became partners in every sense of that charged word, it had felt so right. But now that we were telling people we were engaged and moving 500 miles to start a new life in a new city together, it was all starting to feel very real, very quickly. And that drew a neon yellow highlighter over the questions we’d conveniently shoved off to one side of our eager embrace.

Number one, underlined, in bold: do I want to have children?

I knew Terry wanted kids. And that made me want to want them. But I wasn’t, couldn’t be sure, not yet, and that clanging alarm of uncertainty brought me back again and again to that moment when twenty-seven-year-old Bernie Green had opened his door to find me waiting on the other side. What was it in his life up to that point that had compelled him to say yes—to me, to fatherhood, to a new life that he couldn’t have seen rushing toward him just hours before?

How did he know?

And how will I?

*      *      *



Bernie / 1962

Bernie entered the store on a mission, shouldering past the swinging door of heavy glass framed in thick wood that threatened to push him back out onto Georgia Street.

The smell inside Eddie’s Corner Grocery hit him first, a damp and pungent mix of raw meat, soiled cardboard, and sweat, barely dented by the softer, sweeter scents of oranges and apples from the compact produce section, all of it overlaid with the acidic bite of industrial cleansers. The narrow aisles of sky-hugging shelves, crammed with boxes and bags of cereals and flour and crackers and the brown sugar that Mom used to sweeten up her oatmeal cookies, rose nearly to the ceiling, or at least seemed to from his vantage at four-foot-three. He could see the rows of fluorescent bars clinging to the ceiling without craning his neck now, after a close crop (“Number four!”) the day before from Sam the Barber, who’d left a haystack of dark curls in his wake. Two bits later, Bernie could see the sky again without tilting his head up.

Trailing down Eddie’s center aisle—there were only three—Bernie reached up to run his finger along the faces of a row of cereal boxes (“Post Toasties!” “Alpha-Bits!” “Cocoa Wheats!”) before cutting right through the gap at the center of the store to the candy rack stationed between the mysterious plastic-flapped doorway into the storeroom and the small counter at the end of the meat case where a cash register waited. The open box of Red Vines was tucked neatly into the rack’s bottom shelf, below the Baby Ruths and Hershey bars, the Life Savers and bubble gum cigarettes, and leagues below the Juicy Fruit gum and Pez dispenser refills lining the top row. Next to the open box of red twists was an identical cardboard rectangle holding their darker, more exotic twins.

Bernie came to a stop in front of the rack and stared, fingering the dime in his pocket as a sinuous melody filtered out of the transistor radio behind the cash register, some sort of horn trading notes and runs with a soothing bed of strings as gentle bass and drums slumbered along underneath. Was it clarinet? Bernie’s music teacher had played one for the class the month before. It felt like a lullaby for grownups, and soothed Bernie into a fugue state until an enthusiastic voice cut in: “And that’s your new number one, America—‘Stranger on the Shore.’” Bernie hummed the melody under his breath while fretting over his next move.

Danny Stillson had trapped him inside the backstop on the ballfield the day before and told him he needed to fork over a nickel a week from now on or Danny and his goon squad would never leave him alone. On the one hand, he wanted to be like Elvis in Kid Galahad, standing up to the gangsters and winning the big fight at the end. But the truth was that he coveted Elvis’ guitar more than his boxing skills, and Danny’s offer actually didn’t seem like that bad of a deal, since what he really wanted most was just to be left alone. At eight years old he was a quiet kid with few friends whose fondest desire was simply, as Dad might have said, to get on with it. To live life without having to look over his shoulder every time he ventured farther than the row of weary duplexes that made up his block of the old military port town of Vallejo, California.

Every Friday afternoon he would take the dime his mother slipped him for allowance, walk down to Eddie’s and buy five red and five black licorice whips, enough to last two or three days if he didn’t go wild on it (which he often did). But he needed a nickel back if he was going to pay Danny. Which meant he could only pay for five, which meant it wouldn’t be an even number of red and black, which shouldn’t have mattered, really, but somehow felt like a screaming emergency. NO. There have to be the same number of each. Or else it’s—it’s like the whole universe is out of balance.

Bernie had read about the Big Bang in the encyclopedia in the school’s library but didn’t understand some of the words. And anyway, the story about the beginning of the universe didn’t seem nearly as interesting as the end, where the stars and planets and space would stop expanding and reverse direction and pull back together faster and faster until everything would come smashing down into a single point with infinite mass. Bernie didn’t really know what “infinite mass” meant, but it sure sounded cool.

“Hey, kid.” The voice startled him out of his reverie, a familiar, amiable greeting from the crewcut, ruddy-faced man in a white apron behind the counter. “Thinking it over?” The man was smiling at him, though Bernie couldn’t figure why.

“Um, yeah. Yes,” Bernie corrected himself, avoiding the man’s eyes while staring at the butter rum Life Savers for a slow count of five, until a young woman in a yellow dress and matching scarf approached the meat counter and captured the man’s full attention. With one last glance in either direction to make sure no one was watching, he reached down, counted out five of each color, and stuffed the five black into the hip pocket of his tan corduroys as quick as he could.

With the five red in his left hand he turned toward the cash register, only to find the woman in the yellow dress—whose perfume smelled like spring had literally exploded inside the store—now getting rung up by the man in the white apron, who seemed to be really, really happy about the pair of lamb chops he had wrapped up in a neat white paper bundle secured with masking tape. Grown-ups were so weird sometimes.

The man’s eyes stayed locked on the departing figure in the yellow dress until she finally stepped out of view, the bell over the front door dinging her departure. “Okay, kid,” he sighed, turning back to Bernie. “You ready?”

“Sh-sure,” he said, reaching into his pocket for the dime. The dime that was now buried halfway down his thigh under a warm, sticky lump of black licorice whips. Alarms went off in his mind, urgent clanging peals accompanied by the up-down swooping siren of a fire engine.

He dug around the blob clogging up his pocket, straining and beginning to sweat. Why are dimes the smallest? It makes no sense! Pennies should be the smallest!

Finally his thumb located the grooved edge of the coin and he pincered it out gingerly, like he was removing the tiny white plastic thigh bone in a game of Operation. As the silver face glinted off the overhead lights, he let himself exhale again, setting the red vines on the counter with his left hand before bringing the dime up next to them with his right.

The man opened his mouth to say something and then froze with a look of vague concern. The air seemed to go out of the room. The man’s shoulders sagged. He cocked one eyebrow. Bernie turned and looked over his shoulder, but there was no one there.

“What about that one?” The man finally said, pointing down at Bernie’s pocket. He looked down to see a single twisting black rope trailing out of his pocket, that must have clung to the back of his hand as he drew out the dime.

“I—” His mind raced like a Hot Wheels car on a sheer incline off the kitchen counter. He rammed his hand back into the pocket and held it there. “That’s—that’s from yesterday!”

The man just looked at him and let out another sigh. After a minute he shook his head gently. “C’mon, kid. Every Friday afternoon it’s the same deal. School lets out, you walk in, five red, five black, dime on the counter and out you go. I could time it on my watch if I had one.” He pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows, waiting for Bernie to respond.

The weight of disappointment in the man’s voice and expression was somehow worse than if he had yelled “Stop! Thief!” at the top of his lungs.

“I—” Bernie looked away, face on fire, eyes darting. He wanted to run out the door and never come back. But the other clerk, an older, round and balding man with a badly stained apron, was now watching them from the far corner of the meat case, three steps from the door. He was trapped.

As he felt the first tears well at the corners of his eyes, the words came bursting up and out. “Please, mister! Please!”

The man came around the counter and knelt down in front of him, their eyes now level. “What, son?”

“He’ll whup me!” Bernie cried. “He’ll whup me good! Please, mister!”

“Who will?”

Bernie brushed at each eye in turn with his sleeves, his lips trembling. He knew enough about the world to know that the next thing he said was important and he’d better get it right.

“My, this, ah, this kid. From school. He—he says I have to give him a nickel from my allowance every week.”

“Really?” The man seemed to be looking over his shoulder at Stained Apron for a minute, as if checking something with him. Then he looked back at Bernie and nodded to himself. “Okay, here’s the deal, kid. I think I know what’s in your pocket, and with the five red up on the counter, that makes a dime you owe us, right?”

“I—I mean—yeah, but—” The man held up his hand, cutting Bernie off.

“I’m going to take your dime and put it in the cash register, and then we’ll be all square.” He reached under the apron into his own pocket. “And in the meantime, I’m going to give you this.” He produced a nickel and put it in Bernie’s palm, closing his fingers over it. “Here’s what you tell that boy. You tell him Larry from the corner grocery is your banker, and after this week, if he wants to collect, he can come collect from me.”


“Sure, kid.” The main smiled and then gave him a wink, before straightening up and moving back behind the counter. He reached over, picked up Bernie’s dime, and rang up the sale with a flourish. “Don’t forget those reds. And remember—tell ’im I’m your banker now.”

“O—okay. Okay!” He grabbed for the red vines and bolted for the door. “Thanks!” he yelled back over his shoulder as he crossed the threshold to freedom.

In the ensuing quiet, Larry met Stained Apron’s stare. The only sound inside the store was a low, steady hum from the cold cases. Finally, the older man shook his head and looked away. “Jesus H. Christ. When did the Marines get so fuckin’ soft?”

*      *      *

Fortunately there was no cross traffic as Bernie ran as fast as his legs would carry him across Georgia Street to the relative safety of the opposite curb, only then turning to make sure Larry hadn’t changed his mind and come after him. Once in the clear, he ducked into the doorway of Mary’s Fashions and sorted things right, putting four of the five reds in his left front pocket and pulling the one loose black vine out of his right. He polished off the one red he’d held out in a few quick bites before moving on, carrying the black and savoring each morsel as he walked, dodging a mother pushing a stroller and two determined-looking men heading into the hardware store.

Another block down he crossed back and into the small park—called the Common in a vague nod to the East Coast roots of most of the town’s postwar cross-country emigres—that sat opposite Eddie’s on the Oakwood side of the corner. The park eventually flowed into and merged with the outfield of the ball diamond at Grover Cleveland Elementary School, with the middle school wing behind it and the primary wing across the playground blacktop from that. Avoiding the empty ballfield and the bad juju it had held ever since the incident with Danny Stillson, he kept to the line of trees next to the low hedge that walled off the park from the street. A blond girl he recognized as a friend of his older sister Ruth rolled by on the sidewalk, steel skates rattling away.

Home free. I’m home free now.

Near the main entryway into the park there was a gazebo, a circle of six white pillars with latticed rails. He mounted the three steps up onto the platform where live musicians played every Saturday in summer. He loved the concerts equally whether it was a Bach sonata played by a quartet, bluegrass played on fiddle and banjo, or a Mariachi band with horns. The presence of live music played by players he could watch as they performed did something to him, tickled his senses in a way that he could barely describe. He would sit on their family’s blanket on the grass, gripping a cold bottle of root beer with both hands, every pore from the top of his head all the way down between his shoulder blades singing the melody back in a rash of tingles that felt like an injection of pure joy.

He sat down on one of the benches lining the inside of the gazebo and stared hard over at the baseball backstop. The gazebo was just out of bounds from the ballfield, a hazard that left fielders sometimes had to avoid when chasing foul flies down the line. Safely ensconced, nibbling at the remaining stub of the black vine as the smell of fresh-cut grass and damp wood seeped up from under his feet, he started to hum “Blue Suede Shoes” while absent-mindedly reaching up with his free hand to rub the soft fuzz remaining on top of his head. That in turn pulled him into a memory of the conversation he’d overheard after his father had brought him home from Sam the Barber’s two days before, smelling of Aqua Velva.

After a tense dinner (“Clean your plate, young man,” his father had instructed) that ended with being sent upstairs while the grown-ups did the dishes, he had crouched at the top of the stairs as he sometimes did, straining to overhear his parents below while pretending he was a Soviet double-agent spying on the Americans.

“What were you thinking?” his mother had demanded. He imagined her standing there, hands on hips, apron over her house dress, a dishrag trailing from one hand like a damp white flag. “He looks like he was run over by a lawn mower!”

Bernie could just glimpse his father’s legs at the base of the stairs up to the house’s three small bedrooms, and sense him—dark and wiry, with thick ropes of muscle and veins popping at his neck—glowering back. “It’s for his own good.”

“This again? Max. You need to stop thinking like you just walked off the boat. This is America.”

“You don’t understand,” his father fumed, his accent rising with the emotion in his voice, the vowels constricting and consonants taking on foreign shapes. It felt like his father became a different person when he got angry. “It’s hard enough for a Jewish child in this world without running around with a head full of black curls. You think they don’t whisper behind our backs? You think Sam doesn’t call us a bunch of lousy kikes when one of his high school football buddies is sitting in his chair?”

“Oh, Max. Why do you always have to believe the worst about people?”

“Because I’ve seen it,” he hissed, taking in a sharp, heavy breath and letting it out again in a rush. Bernie knew the muscles in his father’s cheeks would be clenching and unclenching now, bouncing up and down over his prominent cheekbones. “I’ve seen it.”

“Max. That was then. This is now. You’re in California. In 1962. It’s so much better than it used to be.”

“Is it?”

* * * * * * * * * *

Home Was a Dream will be available in paperback and electronic editions on April 9. Pre-order the electronic edition here.

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