When I tell you this story about an event in my life, just remember, I may be the teller of the story and it deals with something that happened to me but this story is really about them and especially about you.
I was eight years old. There were many things that I knew at that time but understanding the things I knew was very different. Not necessarily innocent, but I believed certain things about the world. Some things made sense; other things didn’t. It was as simple as that.
Summertime. Hot, wet, the birds moving slow through thick air, the sound of cicadas singing the heat song. I don’t even know if I remember the names correctly — let’s just call my friends Andy, Alan, Philip, Bonnie and Diane. I probably do have the names right but I wouldn’t want to bet money on it after all I’ve been through since then.
The blocks in this little town of North Arlington, nestled right by the major swamps stretching to the edge of the big river separating us from New York, were definite rectangles, not winding streets like wealthier suburban towns. Factory towns like to keep things neat so things run smooth like assembly lines are supposed to run.
Every morning at breakfast, my mother would cook some eggs and bacon and Alan would stick his face into the window and I would smile and it was all simple. He came everyday during that summer that never had an end, and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know when or where it began. My mother would open the door and ask Alan if he wanted anything to eat and he would slip right into the chair beneath the window.
I don’t even remember what we talked about. There was the sound of the eggs popping in the grease and the smell of the bacon as she put it between the paper towels and then spilled the fat into this container that we put out for people to pick up. My mother told me that they made soap with the fat. To this day I don’t even know whether that’s a fact or what, but I know I’m drifting away from the main story. That happens to me now. My focus has changed. Of course, I’m lucky that I have any focus left at all.
I said earlier that this was a story about them but I haven’t even got to who they are yet. Not my friends, that’s not who I’m talking about. David. He’s the first, but not the leader of the others. He is older than me and if he’s dead now he’s still older than me because that’s the way time does us.
His hair was curly blonde and his eyes were blue and they were laughing from the corners all the time but his mouth never smiled. The playground was for all of us and that was where I met him. He would talk to me like he was my friend and say things that I knew were true and there was no reason not to believe the things he said. After all, I said the things I believed and meant them. Why it should be different for anyone else was never anything I even considered back then.
David was about 4 years older than me and the world was a safe place for all of us.
There was another group of boys that people our age told stories about and I never knew whether they were true or not because we would always run away when they came to the playground or wherever we were. They were called the Carlson gang and, as the story went, they would give us a pretty fair beating if they caught us. They never did, any of us, at least not yet, so none of us had real experience to base the tales on, but we would run like hell when they came around.
I saw Ronnie once. He was the younger Carlson. He had dirty blonde hair. His older brother was named George. George had black, curly hair. We heard he was in the youth home on and off. As the story went, one time in the playground, George just walked up to the baseball field where some kids were playing ball, picked up one of the spare bats and hit an older guy that we knew as Sutch in the head with the bat. Those that were there said that Sutch fell right down but his legs were shaking up and down like he was running away while he was laying on his back and George was just rubbing the bat against the cloth of his dungarees, not even smiling.
Sometimes we would see Sutch in the halls at school shuffling slowly down the hall with his shoulders bowed to the center of his chest. They moved him into that special class that we all knew about then. This was after the accident. No one saw George for a while after that. As a matter of fact, he really has no part in the story except that he was the one who started the gang. At least that’s what the other kids say. There are always stories.
Did I get side-tracked again? I was just telling how I saw Ronnie once. He was with his dog, holding the dog around his neck with the crook of his arm, kneeling on the sidewalk, and there were four or five kids my age just up by the corner calling him names. Ronnie stayed on his knees holding his dog and just watched us. I say “us” because I joined the group but I don’t remember whether I said anything or not. Ronnie never said anything but he didn’t run or come closer, just stayed there. Every once in a while, one of the kids I was with would move towards him but they would stop because he wouldn’t budge.
After a while the fun of it ended and we left. I turned around as we were walking away and Ronnie stood up next to his dog, watching us go but not saying anything. I turned around again and he was gone.
I never saw Ronnie again until the day that I am telling you about now. This was my day, the day that the world darkened into crazy night and when I woke up it was twisted at the neck like it had this accident and never could get back to – well, don’t let me get ahead of myself. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.
There was another member of the Carlson gang that I haven’t got to yet. His name was Marell. A big husky boy with freckles all over his face. Big teeth. He had that fat smell even though he wasn’t fat. Sour, sweat, rancid. I know what that smell is because whenever I smell it, I think of him. Even after all this time has passed. I never saw him before that day, nor did I hear of him again. Our paths did not cross again after that day and I can’t say what I might do if they did.
But let’s pretend nothing happened yet. Let’s pretend that the world has an order and a sense to it and that things don’t get out of whack. Let’s pretend the world is sane.
I think we were still in the kitchen — Alan, my mother, and me — and we were focused on the eggs and bacon and the creamy, buttered toast whisking across my plate to pick up the left-behind yolk. The last bit of bacon, the juicy part, not quite well-done, dripping with goodness all over my tongue as my teeth bit down on it. Wiping my hands with the napkin, Alan doing the same, the shadow of my father just coming down the stairs for breakfast as we were going out the door.
“Don’t forget to be home in time for lunch,” my Ma called out as we zipped out of the yard, me throwing my hand up in the air in a quick wave to let her know that I heard. Two blocks away, then three blocks away and there waiting, just outside the woods, were the rest of my friends.
There was Andy, skinny ropy arms with dimples on both cheeks, Philip, blond hair and bad teeth and chubby around the middle, Bonnie, short blonde hair with freckles and a kerchief tied around her head, built like a boy and she was better than most of us at baseball, and Diane, who I played strip poker with one time in her attic and was waiting for another chance but we won’t go into that story right now.
Just then the clouds moved over the sun. I remember it was that moment because we all looked up at the same time and the sun didn’t come out again. Sometimes I wish I could forget the details. The small details just come to me again and again and I wish that my mind had natural clouds that the details could just slip behind. In our minds the clouds don’t hide anything. It’s always all there whether or not you want to go looking. Always all there.
And here we are outside the woods where it all started and where it would all wind up. The woods. It was an unbuilt area, one of the few left in our town. There were houses and streets all around it, but it was like three blocks square and you could wonder how it all got away from the men with the bulldozers. For us it was one of the places we liked to go because we moved back and forth through time and fashioned our dreams out of the mystery of the wood.
(to be continued and concluded next issue)