The Way We Were

The fire hall bell means 6-o’-clock, it’s time to come home. Irv is on, chicken’s off the grill.

Summers spent rampaging house to house, hopping pool to pool, forming ever-larger pickup games of baseball till the evening’s final light. No fences. No enemies. Just kids, racing each other around a neighborhood named for a man who built the homes that housed us all.

Oh, sure, we got into trouble. I got into my fair share. I spent many timeouts chained by glares to porches, not for doing harm, but for excessive curiosity and boundary crossing. I spat my mouth off, rode my bike too far, said “It’ll be alright” too often … cuts and scrapes we got were battle-scars we wore like champs.

I looked forward to freezie-pop headaches and the coconut scent of sunblock. We lowered the rims to 7′ so we could 360-dunk like Mike.

We didn’t peer down in a foggy Facebook haze, we didn’t post our trip to the frog pond on Instagram. #Amphibiannovation. We took an oath of blood to share with those who mattered most: the band of brothers meant to be there.

The kids on the block lived for each other, killed for each other and died for each other. When it grew too dark for hide-and-seek, we lit the flashlights and played prey-and-predator. We pushed each other downhill, pulled each other uphill. Field trips to the swingsets. Lemonade stands on the road, and when it rained … we pulled our bikes inside, turned them upside down and tried to harness the power of lightning by spinning the pedals like turbines. Of course it worked. We didn’t know better.

The cars would parade home in the evening; our fathers home from work. We were on the clock, “Dinner will be ready soon.” We’d make tenuous arrangements to meet out after our meals, but when you’re young and at the mercy of people twice your size, breaking plans was fairly common. We’d finish up our games and then we’d hear the bell. It’s 6-o’-clock. Time to come home.

Friends and relatives would shuffle in and out. An extra plate for Papa. Perhaps there’d be a backyard bonfire or a neighborhood bash on Friday. Every waking hour of summer matters, and the kids wouldn’t be denied.

Daylight turned to dusk and pools felt warmer, stiller. We’d lay there, missing nothing, possessing everything we’d ever need. Our only friends were right there. Our families just inside. Baseball on the TV. Cookies on the deck.

The young mind’s imagination never fixates on what it lacks, only what it dreams could be. We’d spend hours doing nothing, yet it was everything to us.

*******************************************

Knock at the door. I was upstairs. “John,” my roommate hollered, “Somebody’s here to see you.”

I ran downstairs, it was the woman from down the street. She was late-20s, chesnut hair, prom queen beauty with a deadly wit to boot. “Hey, what are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I replied.

“Come on over, the kids are asleep. Come down, I have some wine.” The wink revealed intent.

How could I refuse? I’d finished dinner, was off work, and finals ended the week before. The night was young and pregnant with possibility. “Ok,” I said and smiled. I didn’t bother to change my clothes. We walked down the sidewalk, sparked a bowl and she led me inside her home.

We talked and kissed and cuddled, gazing deep into her eyes glassing over, getting drunker by the hour. “Oh, you’re so funny,” she kept telling me. “You’re not like other boys your age.”

Her bed was quite comfortable – soft, white blankets and feather pillows strewn about a memory foam mattress. We laid there for hours, doing everything but sleep – only interrupted twice by wandering children asking for water. I wonder if they asked her what the noise was all about.

When I was ushered out at 3 a.m. (the kids shall never know!), I popped next-door for the after-hours party. There was whiskey, darts and minors with questionable ethics. There was pong and drunken frat boys wrestling about. Strangers, friends and lovers; exes and more strangers. A bonfire in the back. A bong by the water. The night, no longer young, was peppered with lunacy. Soon-to-be-adult-ish friends were engaged in various degrees of debauchery. Many of these kids mere years away from kids of their own, doing the things we teach our children not to do when they come home from – well, whatever kids come home from nowadays.

And then, per usual, the Amherst Police would make their scheduled nightly house call. We’d keep the noise down a while, and break out the guitars when speakers stopped. And the cigarette-smoking girls would giggle and swoon, and the frathouse boys would say “chill” and pick more fights with other frathouse boys. And we’d all loft eight-irons into the pond in the neighbor’s yard.

And then the sun would start to peak across the hills way over yonder, and the rooster would crow, and my head would throb and realize I didn’t remember doing a thing.

6-o’-clock. Time to come home.

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