THR Web Features   /   June 24, 2021

The Desk

How imagination kept the unthinkable at bay.

Mike Rose

( A poster from the 1950s science fiction adventure series Space Patrol.)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the comfort of the small space, the cubby, a nook. And the box, the cardboard box, and, even better, two of them, arranged so that one opens onto the other, so that you can crawl from one through the other.

As a little boy, there was the soft tunnel under blankets. Once I had the bed to myself, I’d burrow under the quilt imagining passageways to safe mystery.

The cardboard box was recently enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame. “The empty box,” said the curator, “is full of possibilities that kids can sense.” On a loftier plane, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes at length about the intimacy of drawers and chests, and how each of the nooks and corners of the house we are born in is “a resting place for daydreaming.”           

There were no nooks or resting places in our spare rented house.

* * *

Not long after my parents bought new furniture, two men came and took it back. It was “repossessed” my father said. I didn’t really understand what that meant—I was nine—but I remember standing with him in our bare kitchen, a vague sense of shame and threat in the air.

They left some old stuff in the front room—a faded blue couch, a coffee table—and didn’t take our beds. My mother, father, and I shared the small bedroom. Mom had to get up before dawn to make her shift in a restaurant two long bus rides away, so she slept on a single bed by the door. My father and I shared a double bed close to her.

Down the street from us there was a second-hand furniture store that had a hand-lettered sign in the window. It was a dark, cluttered place; if it held a light piece of furniture—blond wood, shiny brass—I never saw it. My father made a deal with the owner: he’d watch the place for a few hours a day in exchange for a refrigerator, for a table and some chairs.

After we got the basics, my father picked out something for me. It was an odd, old-fashioned thing, a mahogany desk-cabinet sitting on four tall, carved legs. I’ve never seen anything quite like it since. The cabinet was maybe two-and-a-half feet high and two feet wide and pretty deep. Two hinged doors covered it. I would turn a chair from the dinner table and lean into it, imagining it as my room.

Along the back there were small drawers and slots for letters. My mother brought home pads of paper and booklets of checks from the restaurant. These were for drawing and writing and went into the slots. I put crayons and pennies in the drawers—secret little containers that slid smoothly in and out. I illuminated the dark side panels with pictures cut from the magazines my mother would find on the bus. Cars, experimental jets and rockets, nice houses with flowers, Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa, her bare leg thrust out of a rippling skirt. The pictures were portals to other worlds. My room, I told my parents. This is my room.

I spent more and more time at the desk, doing homework, drawing, putting things in the drawers, taking them out again, fantasizing about the pictures inside. At my back, my father would be watching 1950s TV: Sergeant Bilko, The Honeymooners, The Perry Como Show, Dragnet, and the early days of professional wrestling, fleshy men with curly hair or a mask or a cape tossing each other around and inflicting fake paralyzing moves like the Atomic Drop. I’d lean further into my room, the blue-grey light and tinny laugh track of the television receding behind me.

* * *

My father wasn’t like the fathers of my friends. He didn’t go off to work in the mornings. My mother did that. Although I knew he was different, I didn’t realize how sick he was. Maybe my mother didn’t either.

My father tended to the used furniture store and made a few bucks playing cards. One or two evenings a week, he’d take over the dinner table for pinochle with these three Italian guys—Ed, Tony, and Cheech—two of whom lived behind our house. My mother and I let them be. They didn’t talk much, just smoked and cursed the hands they were dealt. Dad was good and helped support us for a few years.

My father’s first stroke came at that table. We were in the middle of dinner when he passed out, silent, quick, his knife and fork clattering to the floor. My mother managed to call for an ambulance while I grabbed at the table crying, “Is he OK?” This was the beginning of a turn in our lives, one of hospital corridors and waiting rooms. After talking to the doctors, my mother told me food got stuck in my father’s throat and that he would be alright.

I can’t imagine what my father was feeling during these years. He was close-lipped, stoic, never mentioned a thing…at least not around me. But here he was, depending completely on his wife, watching the few protections he could provide against poverty slip away from him. Writing this, I realize the meaning of something he started to do: apply for citizenship. He had emigrated from Italy as a boy and had no formal education. He could barely read and write, but he began, with the help of my mother and me, to memorize basic facts about US history and politics. The poor guy was hoping, I suppose, that his citizenship would somehow protect us as he lost control.

One night, trying to move me over to get into bed, he nicked his shin on the metal frame. The tiny cut wouldn’t heal. Over several months, it grew, ulcerated, spread slowly, awfully. My father’s vascular disease was too advanced. The doctor ordered an oscillating bed, a mattress on a motorized platform that see-sawed up and down to assist the flow of blood through my father’s legs. Because of its size, the bed was placed in the living room, right when you walked in the front door. My mother and I would look at the ulcer, a brown-red lesion that eventually spread over my father’s entire left shin. We looked at it and looked at it, trying to convince ourselves that it was healing. Does it look better? Does it? They eventually had to amputate the leg.

My father recovered in the Santa Monica Rehabilitation Center, many miles west from us, right on the beach. We had been to the beach once or twice before, but now we went often, taking the bus or driven by our landlady, Mrs. Jolly. The Rehabilitation Center was an old multi-storied building, large windows along the full length of the ground floor, light suffusing the interior. We would sit on the patio with my father in his wheelchair, then go out to the beach. The hot sand, the smell of oil and lotion, the rush into the waves. Behind us, maybe fifty yards from the shoreline, my father would be practicing his gait with an artificial leg or sitting on the patio, smoking cigarettes with Mrs. Jolly. In memory, the building is white as bleached bone, the sun fierce on it, the image tinged with worry.

I would go home, my skin warm, and sit at my desk until it was time to go to bed.

* * *

The French doors of the family room open onto a long swimming pool crinkled at the edges from taping. Inside the desk, there is also a crease in the rocket ship, the movie ads, Saturn and its rings, the flower beds.

The family room, the bright kitchen, the patio. At nine or ten in our monochromatic house—grays, faded browns, and blues in my mother’s photographs—I conjured an alternative home from Good Housekeeping and The Saturday Evening Post. This is the kind of house so many of my generation fled, and it is not at all like the place I live in now.  But back then there was something filled with peace and promise in having soft rugs to lie on, bedrooms with thick blankets turned back, sunlight streaming through curtains, lilies on the table.

When she was a young woman, my mother loved going to the movies. One of my early memories is of the two of us watching Singin’ in the Rain. It was undoubtedly an anxious time for my mother, yet there we were laughing, watching Gene Kelly dancing in the rain, tip-tapping in puddles, no galoshes, no raincoat, doing all the things a kid wouldn’t be allowed to do—pure joy.

Once my father lost his leg, my mother would have fewer and fewer opportunities to go to the movies, though when she drew the grueling split-shift—breakfast then dinner, with time off in between—she’d wait out lunch in a theater. And, before my father got really sick, she and I would go to the weekend matinees. Then I started going on my own. I fell under the spell of an improbable mix of movie stars, from Ava Gardner to Doris Day. The strange bedfellows of preadolescent libido. A magazine shot from one of their movies or an ad from the newspaper would make its way onto the wall of my desk, by the rocket ship, alongside the garden seen from a window of my room.     

There was a feeling to it all that I craved, the Contessa’s flashing eyes or Gene Kelly’s buoyant splashing. I’d replay and replay a scene in my mind or hum a song so often that I can easily reproduce it today. As near as I can tell in recollection, the feeling was connected to graceful movement, vitality, beauty, what my mother called being full of life. The doors of the family room open, and Ava Gardner walks with perfect heel to toe out onto the patio.

* * *

A popular song warned that the moon can break your heart. The rings of Saturn, thin as paper, circled out to me from somewhere back under the drawers. The remnants of a moon, luminous ice and dust.

This was the time when test pilots were pushing way beyond the sound barrier. (Scott Crossfield, a name I still remember, flew twice the speed of sound in 1953.) I had pictures of these men in flight suits with helmets under their arms, smiling, standing by bullet-like planes: Chuck Yeager and “Glamorous Glennis,” Joe Walker and “Little Joe.” I watched on newsreels as guys on rocket sleds were slammed back in their seats, then hit with massive gravitational force in deceleration, camera close on their faces, skin suddenly tight, cheeks rippling violently.

I watched Buck Rogers, Captain Midnight, Space Patrol…whatever I could find on television that involved jets or space travel. “Spaaace Patrollll” the announcer intoned, and it was my favorite. Commander Buzz Corry in easy give-and-take with Cadet Happy as their Battle Cruiser zooms intergalactically; the beautiful Carol before the astronavigator, pulling levers, turning knobs, reading off numbers to the crew. The woosh of electric doors. Lights blinking on the walls. The magnificent control panel.

The sponsors advertised a “space control board,” and I sent away for it. It was a cardboard triptych that I unfolded on the dinner table, an easy turn from my desk. It had paper dials and needles that spun on metal fasteners. And it had this most amazing thing: two small portals, one on each side panel, equipped with long rubber bands. You inserted a straw, pulled back, and shot the sleek straw-missile into deep space by the kitchen door.

Not too long after I moved into my present home, the house next door went on the market. An old fellow and his daughter had lived there for decades, and when he died, she put the place up for sale. In the back yard was a small wooden shed where the father used to spend his time before he became infirm. The shed was near collapse, patches of the roof rotted through, covered by the morning glories that blanketed it. The new owner invited me over. Inside the shed, covered with dust and cobwebs, were stacks of electronic instruments: control panels, monitors, scopes. A single bare light with a long pull cord hung overhead. A stool was off to the side. The daughter told the owner that her father used to track satellite launches from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. But his real passion was trying to establish contact with extraterrestrials.

Later that evening, flashlight in hand, I went back alone.

I pictured the father sitting there, maybe soldering wires together, maybe turning knobs, flipping switches. Accelerometer. Shock Monitor. Pulse Generator. Beaming out signals and scanning the panels for some response. Rows and rows of bulbs, dials, small scopes. What did he see? Night after night waiting for a sign. Did the needles ever jump?

It turns out that someone has set up a nostalgia website for Space Patrol. Looking through it, I’m struck by the futuristic language, the cheesy technospeak: The Magnetic Force Control that guides spaceships into Terra City. The astrogation compartment of the Battle Cruiser where Commander Corry reviews maps of the galaxy. There are paralyzing ray guns and Cosmic Smoke Guns, the metal Enduriam, the space-o-phone and the Brainograph. I used to love these words and yearned to use them. As I stood in that shed, as old now as the previous owner when he scanned the dials for life beyond Earth, I fingered the knobs and switches on the dead panels. Accelerometer. Shock Monitor. Real names. I had no idea how to work them if they were active, but inert, corroded, they were pulsing with fantasy.

As my father got sicker, I had to come home the minute school was out to care for him. No basketball or baseball at the end of the day. Many of the ways I might have learned to test the world and to counterbalance the slow dissolution of stability in our home—tenuous as it was to begin with­—were just not available. But there were these men on television. Courageous, confident, quick with a quip. I couldn’t be masterful with much in the world around me, but I could imagine myself in their worlds, talking their techno-talk. I would sit at my desk ascending into the wide sky at morning, into the deep blue edge of space, beyond the moon, beyond Mars, to Saturn, to one of its moons, orbiting close to the rings. These were places where I could imagine anything, be anybody. Space travel was new, fresh, a laboratory of possibility.

I remember a scene—a dream or a daydream while reading—deep in a tunnel’s inner chamber somewhere in the solar system. It is reddish-brown, and lights are flickering on the walls. Two or three men along with me are thinking things through, urgent but calm and cool, talking about radiation and g-force and all, figuring our way out of a tight spot. The funny thing about this memory is how unfantastic it is. There are no talking robots or bug-eyed aliens here and no screeching soundtrack. The science fiction of the time was filled with the bizarre and the terrifyingly unpredictable. War of the Worlds. It Came from Outer Space. I took these worlds of threat and normalized them. I traveled millions of miles away to escape the developing chaos in our house and created on planetary moons tiny rooms where words and bearing kept the unthinkable at bay.