Saturday, August 25, 2012

Summer Part 9 - What Shelley Saw - Conclusion

What Shelley Saw - Conclusion

My dad, my quiet father, broke into a run and screamed Greg’s name as he tried to cover the last few steps between him and the crazed neighbor man-child. He raised the bat with his right arm when it became clear that he could not reach Farley’s hatchet-wielding arm in time.

The shadow from the dirt hill reached the edge of the sandbox as the sun crept slowly across the vacant lot. Metal and wood and bone became players in an unscheduled summer production in a theater that lacked script and staging and sound. Mr. Mollinger collapsed in the sand.

* * * * *

Greg’s momentary silence rippled across the sandbox and into adjacent yards. Motionless observers heard a metallic clang as the hatchet’s blade tumbled across the weed-infested ground, coming to a rest at the base of the hill sixty feet away. The nerves in Greg’s hand and forearm vibrated in a jolting cascade from the blow that loosened his grip on the broken tool, now lying at his feet.

“That was my Uncle’s!” he shouted. “My father’s gonna KILL you!”

He grasped his throbbing wrist and rubbed it to dampen the fire in his arm.

The force he exerted to swing the bat turned my father half around. He regained his balance and let the wooden club fall to the ground at his side. He leaned on it for support but allowed his hand to regain a firm grip on the slender handle.

Greg was red-faced and looked about to shed a tumbler of tears in an emotional cocktail of embarrassment, anger and pain. The man-child turned to face the man in a display that caused us to wonder if another line was about to be crossed.

Dad took control.

“You go GET your father. And your Goddam UNCLE too for all I care” my dad yelled back, tapping into boy-thoughts at the forefront of Greg’s man-sized but broken self-esteem.

“If you EVER try a stunt like that again, so help me FARLEY, I’ll use this bat on your HEAD, I swear to God!”

To punctuate his threat, Dad lifted the bat and dropped it a couple of times emphatically into the open palm of his other hand.

“You go home!” he finished.

Greg looked around the vacant lot, compiling a menacing inventory of witnesses, then spat on the ground at my father’s feet and walked away.

Mr. Mollinger cradled Ricky in his arms and rocked him on the sand. “You son of a bitch!” he muttered as Farley sauntered past.

Farley turned and glared. Ricky said “Hey Daddy,” and drove his army truck up his father’s leg.

Mike had returned on his father’s heels. He slowly approached the sandbox as most others quietly headed home. Shelley continued to mindlessly turn the wheel of her inverted tricycle while Dad headed into the garage and returned the baseball bat to a bucket of random sports gear. I soon saw the glowing orange tip of a cigarette moving up and down beyond the darkened window next to the garage door as he tried to compose himself. He hadn’t smoked in years, but kept a pack of Kools and a book of matches on a high shelf.

I took Shelley’s hand and led her away from the vacant lot to the safety of our house. Her tears dried as the indifferent shadow from the dirt hill signaled the approaching end of another eventful summer day. The tricycle’s wheel slowed to a stop with a squeak, and a handful of fresh grass settled to the bottom of the inverted fender.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Summer Part 8 - The Appointment, cont'd

The Appointment – Part Two

Overalls shielded me from the cold floor, my legs folded under me as I knelt before my toybox on the hard tile. The rectangular wooden storage chest was pushed up against a painted concrete wall under a window well that allowed a bit of ambient daylight to filter into the basement. The deep box was filled with wonders. Most frequently played-with items occupied the top layer of plastic and metal colors and shapes. A bit of noisy digging and rearranging revealed long lost favorites and some forgotten treasures beneath the bottom layer where the smallest parts settled.

There were whispers. Mom and Dad stuff. I was too young to consider asking about the topic of conversation. There were simply some things that were off limits to four year olds. Adult stuff. Things that might frighten me, or that I wouldn’t understand.

This had all happened before, and I began to withdraw in anticipation of the scary feeling, not unlike the daily abandonment when Dad left for work every morning, leaving me to wonder if he’d vanish for a long time again. I stayed close to Mom, who made sure that I was cared for until he walked back through the door at 5:57pm each evening. I noticed the time on the kitchen clock. The hands were almost straight up and down, and I felt better when we were all together again. My sister was always with her friends. She was impossibly old, a girl, and occupied by her own thoughts and fears. Five years made such a difference.

Earlier in my life there had been an uncomfortable period. Another time of whispers and strange meetings, one in the back room of a clinic where I was told to stare at the checkered floor while I was “hypnotized.” The memory is in black and white, fluorescent and dim. I sat in a hard chair while a man talked to my parents and everyone nervously stood around me, expecting an outburst or tears. I believe they may have been taking my vitals and a sample of blood. I imagined I was in a trance, staring at the contrasting light and dark squares on the floor, distracted to the point of not feeling the needle stick my little arm.

Around that time, Dad disappeared. We visited him at a large brick building with a playground. I played on a swingset waiting for him to come outside. My mother and sister were riddled with anxiety. I absorbed their feelings but didn’t understand, and ran to give Daddy a hug but was told to stop. He was there for three months, and in the end was declared free of tuberculosis. It was a mistake that ultimately led to his death. He swore he’d never go to a doctor again. A terrible stance for a man with bad kidneys and high blood pressure. Chest pains should be taken seriously.

Footsteps sounded at the top of the basement stairs. I turned briefly to see feet and ankles appear in the open framework of the staircase. As knees became visible I turned to face the wall.

“Honey, I’m going,” called my mom, her voice trembling.

She cautiously proceeded to the second stair from the bottom.

“Don’t you want to come and say goodbye?” prodded my grandmother, a step or two behind her.

I said nothing. I didn’t turn. I didn’t feel.

They tried several times with words to bridge the emotional gulf between the stairs and the toybox, but never attempted the three strides it would have taken to cross the physical distance, to deliver a hug and a kiss, to shed tears and platitudes. The zone I occupied did not allow for fear or sadness or rage. Eventually they turned and went upstairs where my mother was driven to the hospital for a hysterectomy. She didn’t know if she’d ever see her little family again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Summer Part 7 - Emergence


A high-pitched chattering buzz progresses from a series of wavelike crescendos to a constant ear-splitting drone during June of 1956. The seventeen-year locust has emerged and announced itself in a competitive orchestral shouting match in the trees overhead. It is the summer before my second birthday. I am unaware of the noise or have tuned it out. I do not remember the event.

I walk home from class at the end of my freshman year of college. The sidewalks are littered with the crisp remains of millions of red-eyed cicadas. I cannot avoid stepping on them, with the accompanying spine-tingling crunch. They fly from tree to tree and from tree to ground, increasing in number as the days warm and lengthen. I am nineteen and aware of the interesting nature of this outbreak. I save one expired bug in a cotton-filled display box and label it with the year.

It is my son’s second summer. It occurs to me that his life is on the same cycle as mine relative to a clock that ticks in seventeen-year increments. He will be nineteen and in college the next time the locusts swarm. For now, my wife and I watch together out a second floor window and record the event on videotape. A second fragile bug is added to the display box and labeled 1990. I decide to add another one to the collection if I can remember to do so, in the unimaginably futuristic year of 2007. I am thirty-six years old.

This year’s emergence has become a much-anticipated family event, mostly because I’ve been telling them about it for several years. The media has whipped up a frenzy of coverage, resulting in numerous conversations among adults and children of all ages. My daughter conquers her fear of insects and becomes a semi-celebrity among the younger children on our street. Cicadas have become an ingredient in a variety of recipes. I collect a number of bugs in various stages of development, mounting them in a new and improved display case alongside two generations of ancestors. I label the box and hang it on the wall. I am fifty-two. I videotape the larval stage of the emergence and edit the footage on my computer. (see my video posted below.) I try not to think about the next time I will greet these creatures, and that it will most likely be my last.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summer Part 6 - What Shelley Saw

What Shelley Saw

Grass grew at a frantic pace during the early summer of 1963. My father struggled to cut parallel rows in the thick green carpet of our back yard. Grass clippings mounted quickly in the open catcher at the rear of his unpowered push mower.

A mountain of topsoil and clay from the house construction two doors down cast a shadow like the Rock of Gibraltar over the vacant lot next door. The lot served as my dad’s personal dump in the days before yard waste collection and composting. It was where he burned leaves in the fall and dumped buckets of waste water when he washed the car. It was where grass clippings formed a growing pile of delicious green sweetness as he stopped to empty the mower’s bag after each few rows.

We played on the grassy slope that led from our back yard to the slightly lower undeveloped property. It was an elevated seating area from which we watched activity on the dirt hill, in the sandbox and down in the holes being dug nearby.

David and Ricky Mollinger played with plastic army soldiers in the large sandbox near the middle of the lot. Their brother Mike and his friend Donny were knee deep with shovels in their latest group of foxholes. Greg Farley labored over a tree stump near the rear of the property with the new hatchet he’d been given as part of his Boy Scout gear. I sprawled on the ground, lying on my back in a growing pile of moist blades, covering myself in the soft warm clippings.

Shelley Farley spun the pedals of her inverted tricycle near the pile of grass. The spoked tire rotated counter-clockwise at a high rate of speed within the confines of the bike’s metal fender. She fed handfuls of fresh clippings into the space between the rubber tire and the fender and watched them spit out at the front end of the bike in a spray of green. She said she was making ice cream. The Good Humor man turned onto our street a few hours later, our appetites whetted by our imaginary dessert.

I had no concern for grass stains or bugs as I watched cottony clouds drift across an unpolluted blue sky. The grass felt wonderfully soft and warm, a bed of intensely fragrant springtime, opening my mental window to the approaching joys of summer and the delight of a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The thwacking blades of the manual mower grew louder as they came closer and then quieter as they retreated to the other side of the yard, reminding me that my dad was nearby and I was safe.

Ricky pushed an armored vehicle up a sand dune, making sloppy shooting and exploding noises with his mouth to counter David’s own barrage of pretend landmines and mortar rounds. Thrusting hands created divots and craters as incoming shells scarred the landscape. One of the blasts caused sand to fly into Ricky’s mouth. He sputtered and spit, but was otherwise unphased by the grit that lingered between his teeth. The noise snapped Greg out of the trance he’d been in most of the afternoon, chopping at the stump nearby. I nudged Shelley to get her attention as her brother slithered to the sandbox.

“Uh oh,” she said. No one knew better than the Farley girls the range of possibilities represented by their brother Greg.

David Mollinger, two years older than Ricky, immediately took note of the approaching danger. He quietly left the sandbox and headed home, leaving Ricky alone on all fours, engrossed in his desert war.

Greg remained outside of the wooden boards that prevented most of the sand from spilling into the grass around the sandbox. He spotted a toy soldier, grabbed it and lay it down on the narrow wooden ledge of the simply constructed frame.

“Hey Mollinger,” he said to Ricky, whose back was turned.

Ricky emerged from his imaginary world like a man overboard, gasping and searching at the surface only to find his lifeboat missing. He turned to face Greg.

“Watch this,” continued Greg.

With a single, swift motion he raised his hatchet above his head, took aim and slashed downward to the vertical board, cleaving the toy soldier neatly in two. He chuckled at his handiwork as the small human figurine fell, half in the sandbox and half outside.

“That’s mine!” Ricky gasped in horror at the ruined toy.

Greg relished the effect his action had on the boy. He ran his finger carefully along the hatchet’s dusty blade, as if clearing it of blood and entrails. It glinted in the sun, scattering light across the sand.

“It’s really sharp,” he said for Ricky’s benefit, and then looked deep into Ricky’s eyes.

“You wanna see how good I am with this?” he asked Ricky.

Ricky nodded innocently. His face went blank, frightened. He did not smile or shake or cry. It was as if a light simply switched off in response to a suggestion that the day was too bright, or the sun too strong. The most vulnerable child on the block was alone with the neighborhood monster, a man-sized fourteen year old bully who could terrify children and some adults with equal facility.

“Come ‘ere!” demanded Greg.

“Mike!” I hissed, motioning to the drama unfolding at the sandbox. Farley glanced briefly in my direction but re-focused on Ricky. Mike took notice and nodded at me, climbing out of the hole he was digging.

“Now!” Farley shouted at Ricky.

Ricky stood and obediently walked the few steps to the side of the sandbox. His clothes dripped sand, much of which wound up in his pockets or pant cuffs. He held his army truck with one hand.

“Get down on your knees and put your hand here,” demanded Greg, motioning to the spot where the toy had been bisected.

“Leave him alone Greg!” I yelled across the lot. Mike took advantage of the diversion to quietly slip around the back of the dirt hill. It shielded him from Greg’s view and put him close to his house. He ran faster than I’d ever seen him run.

“You SHUT UP or you’re next!” Greg yelled at me, standing and half turning in my direction, the hatchet dangling at his side. He pointed at me with his free hand, then turned back to Ricky, who stood looking up, expressionless. “I MEAN it!” he said without turning, intoxicated by his own actions.

“Down. Now!” repeated Farley.

Shelley watched as the scene played out, tears streaming down her face, but silent and motionless as if she had helplessly witnessed interactions like this many times before. Ricky kneeled at the side of the sandbox.

“Put your hand here,” motioned Greg at the spot where the soldier had been destroyed. Ricky’s slow response caused Greg to grab Ricky’s little arm and push it down.

Mike disappeared into the side door of his house at a distance that diminished the sound of a slamming metal screen door to an inaudible clank. Rather than confront the neighborhood bully he had wisely gone to retrieve his dad.

His dad would surely help us. Dad. My dad! The mower had gone silent a few moments earlier. I turned to see where he had gone.

Greg had Ricky’s hand positioned on the top of the two by ten, his tiny fingers splayed open along the edge.

“Now you’ll see how close I can get without hitting your fingers,” Greg claimed confidently.

Greg Farley felt a rush that made him light-headed. He shook off images of his uncle that raced through his mind. He thirsted for Ricky’s fear. The control he had over the trembling toddler filled him with a sense of power that grew as he grew, and intensified with each subsequent encounter like this one.

My dad emerged quietly from our garage, walking purposefully and silently across the yard. He carried a baseball bat.

Time slowed. My dad motioned to me with a finger over his lips. Be quiet.

Farley moved his own hand further up Ricky’s arm, holding his target clear and firm.

Mr. Mollinger burst from his back door, running in our direction. He would not make it in time to protect his youngest son.

Greg raised his hatchet high overhead and slowly brought it down in a practiced arc, then raised it again. He repeated the slow swing twice more, either relishing a surge of adrenaline, or convincing himself to carry out his savage experiment. He was unable to consider the consequences, nor did he care.

In a final swift ascent, the glimmering hatchet scattered reflected light beneath the hand that held it sunward. Greg’s eyes rolled back in his head like those of an attacking great white shark. His chest swelled with excitement. His scalp tingled.

My dad. My quiet father, broke into a run and screamed Greg’s name as he tried to cover the last few steps between him and the crazed neighbor man-child. He raised the bat with his right arm when it became clear that he could not reach Farley’s hatchet-wielding arm in time.

The shadow from the dirt hill reached the edge of the sandbox as the sun crept slowly across the vacant lot. Metal and wood and bone became players in an unscheduled summer production in a theater that lacked script and staging and sound. Mr. Mollinger collapsed in the sand.