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.