When I swung forward, I leaned back so far that the trees were upside down. I enjoyed the giddy feeling in my stomach, but eventually the rope burned my hands and I got off the swing and swayed, slightly dizzy, on the ground. The rope was tied to a tree limb at the top and to an old tire at the bottom. I looked down the gentle hill at the carpet of brown and yellow leaves which gave way to grass and then our house and then more grass and then Freeport Drive and then the hill where I rode my bike and the freedom of being 10 years old in Burlington Massachusetts circa 1980.
I spun around and walked in the opposite direction, into more leaves and sticks, to a path that ran behind our little plot of land. It ran up between all the plots of land on Freeport Drive and those on another street behind. The path was dark and interrupted by stones and tree roots, and it passed by, on the non-Freeport Drive side, the mean-old-lady’s house. We called her the mean-old-lady, Mike and I, because she yelled at us once for some reason only known to mean-old-ladies. But then at some other later date she spoke to us kindly and I thought that maybe she didn’t deserve the name, but it had stuck.
… up the path and then at the end a heap of compost at the entrance to Mike’s yard, where they had a circular above-ground pool. A sign on the platform read, “I don’t swim in your toilet. Don’t pee in my pool.” with a drawing of the legs and lower torso of a man sticking up out of a toilet. We swam in the pool in the summer, and I didn’t pee. The old people sometimes shooed us out and took over, and sometimes they walked in a circle until they created a whirlpool and the water dipped down to an inverted point in the middle.
Mike lived in the red house with his mother and his brothers, but his father didn’t live there anymore. “I hate my father,” he told me, but I didn’t believe him. How could anyone hate their father? I remembered his father, who was short (compared to my father) and had dark graying hair. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, but he had put up that sign about peeing in the pool, so who knows? I imagined it was his legs and lower torso sticking out of the toilet, and I felt sorry for him.
Mike and I rode our bikes around the neighborhood. I had a white Huffy with a long black seat. Across the street from Mike’s house a yard had been landscaped with small, pure-white stones, and Mike and I filled our pockets with them. We turned left at the end of Harris Drive and up the hill, where we entered the woods and rode along a path to the reservoir. There we emptied our pockets of stones and our minds of thoughts.
… back down the hill and down Harris, which veered to the left and became Freeport, and past my house and down another great long hill …
We rode into the main street of Burlington and went to a drug store. We got caps for our cap guns and little bits of paper packed in sawdust — they exploded when you threw them on the ground. We got gum cigarettes — cylinders of bubble gum wrapped in paper with a little bit of fine white powder between the gum and the paper that came out like smoke if you blew in one end. We bought candy, like sugar sticks that you sucked on and then dipped into packets of sour, brightly colored sugar.
When I dreamt of being a rich man, I dreamt of having an endless supply of sugar sticks and an endless supply of sugar packets to dip them in. I had an inkling that I would get tired of it, eventually.
Up the main street from the drug store there was the LeeWards Crafts Store where my mom worked teaching classes on knitting and needlepoint. Further up the road was the pizza place, where they always told us “ten mee-nots!” when we called to order pizza-to-go. “Ten mee-nots!” we would repeat gleefully to each other before getting in the car.
Even further up the road was Simonds park where we would sled in the winter and the Burlington Town Common with the gazebo where bands would play on the Fourth of July and the air would get thick with the smoke from firecrackers.
On Sundays we went to a church across the street from Simonds park. I was an altar boy for a while, dressed in a white robe and carrying a shiny brass stick, at the end of which a waxy wick poked up, for lighting candles, and a bell-shaped cup poked down, for putting them out. My dad would sometimes deliver a lay sermon, and would always take pains to insert his brand of humor. The minister’s name was Roy, and one of my dad’s sermons contained the punch line, “Pardon me Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes?”
The worship hall was light and airy, but sounds were always muffled, especially when accompanied by the sleepy hum of the organ. Every word and move were softened by reverence. When the service was over and we emerged from the church it felt like shaking off a sheath of cotton batting.
On the other side of Simonds Park and the Burlington Town Common was the library, which contained a hush of a different sort.
I had a library card with my number stamped on a little metal plate, and I found purpose in searching for particular books among the stacks. (Having discovered Roald Dahl, I told Mike that I was looking for Dahl books. “Doll books?!” he said with a nasty sneer. I tried to explain, but whether “Dahl” or “doll” it made no significant difference to him.)
… in the family car, a Chrysler station wagon, down Winn to Mill to Chandler to Harris to 46 Freeport Drive, where dad had hung a net on the telephone pole in front of the house. I got the basketball and shot hoops by myself for hours. I learned to give my shots a nice, high arc, and I could make shot after shot after shot. I would be a great basketball player one day, like Larry Bird. (These dreams would be dashed a couple years later when we moved to California and I joined an actual basketball team and was not the phenomenon I had assumed myself to be. Not even close.) But also I would imagine basketball-playing robots that could reproduce that high arching shot with exact precision and make shots from down the street, from the next street over, from the next town over. My robots and I would win every game.
Behind the basketball net, in the yard to the left of the house, we would set up the Slip-n-Slide in the summer. The yard had a nice, even slope to it, and so was perfect. We would shoot off the end of the plastic sheet and get rashes from skidding in the grass. In the same spot in the winter, if the snow was deep enough, we dug out forts. I always remembered and recapped and eulogized the blizzard of ’78, when the fort had been palatial.
I stowed the basketball in the garage, where once I secretly lit the end of a hollow reed on fire to see what real smoking was like. It was terrible.
The door from the garage led to the dark basement. On the left was dad’s workshop with his tools and his boxes with little plastic drawers holding every type of nut and bolt imaginable. There was a soldering iron and a spindle of wonderfully malleable solder. The place smelled of oil and electricity.
Past the workshop on the left was the new bathroom and on the right, my new bedroom. In between was a stain in the concrete floor where I had thrown up once when I was sick. I hadn’t made it to the toilet in time, so after vomiting I just turned around and staggered back to my room. When she found the congealing mess on the floor later, mom was not happy.
… up the stairs, past the front door, and up some more stairs to the high-ceilinged living room, bright from the light from a line of tall windows at the front of the house. We had a piano and a free-standing fireplace that dad had put in. The living room, dining room and kitchen were all one big space, with only a 10-year-old-eye-level partition setting off the kitchen.
We ate dinner in the dining room, of course, but I confounded mom with my picky eating. Sometimes she would give up and tell me to get some American cheese from the refrigerator, the kind that came in individually wrapped slices. Sometimes she dug in her heels, and I found my plate moved to the kitchen table, where I sat in front of cold green beans as the sun set and the room grew dark and everything in the world moved along except me and my plate of cold green beans.
A sliding glass door led out from the dining room onto the back porch. When my hair got too long here is where mom would set out a chair, drape a smock over me and trim it off. The breeze would carry it away.
When I was small I shared a bedroom with Cheryl, the last bedroom on the left down the hall, but when I was older I moved downstairs. It was a great big unfinished room, where I could pile all of my books and stuffed animals. (The king of the stuffed animals was Henry, a quiet and wise dog who looked a bit like Snoopy from the Peanuts when Snoopy walked on his hind legs.)
But mom and dad did some remodeling, and that big room became a family room, with cable TV and Showtime and Intellivision (a game console that never became as popular as Atari). Sometimes I stayed up and watched Saturday Night Live, and I was allowed to watch an R-rated movie: Stripes, which had naked women in a shower.
My new bedroom was on the other side of the basement, next to my dad’s workshop, smaller but tidier and more private. Here I had my radio which played Dr. Demento on Saturday night and my Beatles cassettes. Here I had my Matchbox cars and my imaginary worlds to drive them in. Here I had my copy of the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe, from which I tried to memorize the entirety of The Raven. Here I conjured fantasies about growing up to be a big muscly genius who was admired by beautiful women and became richer and richer from all of my brilliant inventions.
Here I kept letters from Elizabeth, whom I loved. I hadn’t had the guts to tell her so to her face, and so I had written her a letter and decorated it with a rainbow. She had written back with a rainbow of her own, and thus did our romance flourish, in a literary, imaginary sort of way.
Usually my bedroom was a mess, but occasionally I found the resolve to clean it up and put everything in its proper place. After doing so I got in bed at night and I shone a flashlight around the room to look in wonder and pride at my pretty, orderly space, as if by the morning gnomes will have thrown it into disarray once again.