A tomboy, naturally barefoot, gingerly walks the white painted line because the asphalt is just too burning hot. Scrubby tufts of weedy grass are welcome respites on the way, briefly cooling her steps even if they are stickery. The ***** soles of her now calloused feet were intentionally toughened just before school got out, with mincing steps across the roughest gravel she could find. Her mother accommodates her preference, leaving a pan of water outside for her to scrub her feet before going in. Even then, a black path has gradually appeared leading from the front door in the old orangish carpet. Two months of summer barefoot every day when she had the choice. Keyed roller skates clamped onto last year’s school shoes were the exception. She can flat out run anywhere.
This particular expedition began like every other thing they did, which was anything to fend off boredom. She had been sitting on a cement step shaded by an open carport, just three oil-stained parking stalls for three small apartments on the tired poor side of town. There is a little more dirt on the street here, and grass is a little neglected. Just like the children, but these kids prefer that anyway. Two scruffy friends stomp on aluminum cans, brothers sporting matching buzz cuts and cut-off shorts. They are flattening them for the recycling money by the pound, so the carport smells vaguely of stale beer. Another boy attempts to shoot a wandering fly with a home-made rubber band gun; rings cut from a bicycle tube made the best ammo. “What do you want to do?” …”I don’t know, what do you want to do?” Thwack… The only requisite for friendship here is vicinity, yet it is still true. The idea of choosing friends is about as odd as the concept that one could chose where one lives... Strengths and shortcomings are completely accepted because it is just what it is.
Their amazing three-story tree fort with a side look-out had been heartlessly taken down by the disgruntled property owner last week. Two months of accumulating pilfered and scrap two-by-fours, nails, and even a stack of plywood (gasp!) from area construction sites had yielded supplies for a growing fort. A gang-plank style entry had crossed the ditch to the first level. Nailed ladder steps to the second offered a little more vertigo and a prime spot to hurl acorns. Another ladder up led up to the third floor retreat, with a couch-like seating area and shoulder high walls. A breeze reached the leaves up there. The next tree over was the look-out, with nothing but ladder steps all the way up to where the view opened up out of the ravine. When the wind blew, it gave merciless lessons in facing any fear of heights. But now that was all over, discovered gone overnight.
Someone says again, “What do you want to do?” …”I don’t know, what do you want to do?” “ 7-11? ” Good enough, so they head out. Distance measures time. Ten minutes is the end of the street past the cracked basketball court in the church parking lot. Fifteen minutes and the lawns end at the edge of the sub-division. Half-built homes rising from bare dirt and scattered foundations could offer treasures of construction scraps, (where she suspects the stack of plywood came from.) but they keep walking. Twenty minutes is where industry has scraped away nature, and railroad tracks form an elevated levee. But time is meaningless if there’s a wealth of it, so there’s no going further until an informal ritual is completed. Wordlessly they each dig around their pockets searching for equal amounts of pennies. Each of them carefully arrange them lined up on the rounded-surface rail, and they settle in for the wait. It could be five minutes or it could be thirty. They all understand it’s a crap-shoot of patience waiting for the next train. It’s an unspoken test; quitting too early means losing your coins to the one who stays, so that’s not an option.
Heat presses down and the breezeless air smells like telephone-pole creosote. She sits in a dusty patch of shade found next to an overgrown ****. She knows it tastes like licorice and breaks off a stem to chew, but doesn’t know what it is. The boys throw rocks randomly until she finally stands up to join in, tempted by the challenge of flight and distance. Then she stands in the center of the tracks, looking one way then the other, searching for the first random distant glimmer of the engine’s light at the horizon. A flash, so she places her ear to the metal Indian-style, and the imminent approach is confirmed. She calls out, “its here!” and double checks her pennies’ alignment. Heads up or tails, but always aligned so the building might be stretched tall or wide, or Lincoln’s face made broad or thin. That happened only rarely, since it could only be rolled by one wheel then bounced off. If it stuck longer, the next wheels would surely smash it into a thin, elliptical, smooth misshapen disc of shiny copper. Its only value becomes validation of a hint of delinquency, Destroying-Government-Property. Once she splurged with a quarter, which became smashed to just a gleaming silver, bent wafer discolored at the edge. Curiosity wasn’t worth 25 cents again though, so she had only one of those in her collection.
The approaching engine silently builds impending size and power, so she dashes back down the rocky embankment to safety because after all, she is not a fool, tempting fate with stupid danger. She knows a couple of those fools, but she finds no thrill from that and is not impressed by them either. Suddenly the train is here, generating astounding noise and wind, occasional wheels screaming protest on their axels. She intently watches exactly where she placed her coins, hoping to see the moment they fly off the rails that are rhythmically bending under the weight rolling by. It becomes another game of patience, with such a long line of cars, and she gives up counting them at 80-ish. Then suddenly it is done and quickly the noise recedes back to heat and cicadas. The rails are hot. Diligently they search for the shiny wafers. Slowly pacing each wood beam, they could have landed in the gravel, or pressed against the rail, or even lodged straight up against the square black wood yards down the tracks. They find most of them, give up on the rest, then continue on.
She has thirty cents and at last they reach the afternoon’s destination. 7-11’s parking lot becomes a genuine game of “Lava”, burning blacktop encourages leaps from cooler white lines, to painted tire stops, to grass island oasis, then three hot steps across black lava to the sidewalk, and automatic doors swoosh open to air conditioning. She rarely has enough money for a coke icey; she is here for the bottom shelf candy, a couple pennies or a nickel each. Off flavors but sweet enough. She remembered when her older brother was passing out lunchbags of candy to the neighborhood kids for free, practically littering the cul-de-sac. She had wondered where he got enough money for all that popularity, or could he have saved that much from trick-or-treat? She wondered until he got busted shoplifting at the grocery store. The security guard decreed that he was never allowed in there again, forever, and the disgrace of sitting on the curb waiting for the mortified ride home was enough to keep him from doing it again.
Today she picks out a few root beer barrels, some Tootsie-rolls (the smaller ones for two cents, not the large ones that divide into cubes) a candy necklace and tiny wax coke bottles, and of course a freeze-pop. Sitting on the curb, she bites off small pieces of the freeze pop, careful not to get tooth-freeze or brain-freeze, until the last melty chunk is squeezed out the top of the thin plastic tube.
“What do you want to do now?” …”I don’t know, what do you want to do?”