Because we moved around a lot when I was growing up, away from our extended families, the only two cornerstones I had growing up were the red brick house in Lincoln where my father’s parents lived, and the green one in Denver that belonged to my mother’s parents. Those had been there my entire life, places for family members to meet up and regroup when they needed to. Though a very modest home, the green house had once seemed immense, with a converted attic and a basement. We would make haunted houses and play hide and seek. There were thousands of places to hide. The backyard had a swing set with a trapeze, the site of countless circuses and stunt shows.
After my grandfather passed away at the age of 95, still living on his own, the house had been sold and torn down. Now I was going back to revisit the old neighborhood for the first time since. I took the 70 west to the 25 south. The largest thoroughfare was South Broadway. Once I got close enough, I knew how to get there, although the surrounding blocks looked sketchier and more downtrodden since the last time I’d passed through. What dominated now were the fast-food restaurants more than anything.
When I got to the site where the green house had been, there was nothing to remember it by. Even the hill out front had been brutalized. It had been chopped in half and leveled. The house was modern and sterile, void of memories and emotions, someone else’s obsession to carry with them now. The great tents of the world were becoming unpegged. Scrapbooks had been left outside in the wind. Pages were flying away.
My aunt Joan still lives about a mile away from her parents’ old property. I’d given her a call and said I’d stop by before heading over to Gwendolyn’s. She is my mother’s twin sister, once the Bobbsey Twins of Flood Middle School. Joan was waiting for me in the dining room, looking a little older but still getting on. She was eager to hear about my travels and presented me with a little banjo that her fingers had gotten too arthritic to pluck. She was going to join us for dinner that night, so after a short visit I excused myself and raced towards Casa Bonita.
Casa Bonita had been another treasure of our childhood, right up there with Fort Cody. Because we only saw our relatives once a year, a trip to Denver always meant an outing to Casa Bonita. A Mexican restaurant and entertainment complex, with a bell tower that rises above the mall it operates out of, it is almost up to amusement park specifications, with an indoor waterfall, divers, variety shows, mariachi bands, a puppet theater, and video arcade. Some of the tables and viewpoints are carved out of a rock façade. It had been shut down for a few years now, but I stopped by just to look at it and found they were conducting daily tours.
Gwendolyn only lived a few blocks away. I ran over to fetch her and dragged her back for the last tour of the day. Talk about a lucky break. What wasn’t going right on this trip? We drove over and joined two couples who were waiting for the tour as well. The guide was dressed in black, like a medium or witch. It was getting close to Halloween, but she also took us to a secret banquet room where lights were said to flicker off and on by themselves. Overall, Casa Bonita was how I remembered it, although without any customers. The waterfall still fell thirty feet into a pool. The air was misty and smelled like chlorine. There were posters of bullfights on the wall. We could’ve been in Acapulco.
One of our favorite things back in the day had been to wander through Black Bart’s Hideout. Now as middle-aged adults, Gwendolyn and I tromped through it. There was the snarling face of a witch, a bottomless pit to cross, a dragon mouth to enter, in which Gwendolyn posed for a picture, in addition to some kind of ice zombie, and the threat of exploding dynamite.
When we exited, I walked over to the wishing well. It had once been the home of a green ghost, whose face would ripple beneath a thin veil of glass and speak in an ominous tone. Now the well had been given a makeover, all red and yellow, with nothing but coins inside. Glancing inside it was just as unsettling. As a kid, the scariest thing you can imagine is running into a ghost. As an adult, what really gives you a fright is running out of money.