Patience Redux (or Answer to a Prayer, 29 Years Hence)

Across a patch of dirt, at the base of a mighty tree, two lines of six stare unblinking. Eyes narrow as meaty beams of light lance through overhead branches. The plunging bars of light form a transparent fence separating friend from foe. Staring, members of each line fidget, eager for a next step. 

Eager for war.

Rustling resting dust, I take the first step forward. I look about. Then, gathering strength, I take another. Dust specs spin and twirl within illuminated fence posts. Bonds stretch, as I separate myself from the remaining five of my line; some excited, some scared. To my rear, each mouth works a pink wad of gum. I supplied the gum; stolen this morning from the Five and Ten store. In this moment I pay for my crime as the cow-like sounds of gnawing teeth disgust me. The clicking chorus drowns out cicadas’ summer song. Inside my head, I curse myself, ‘Stupid! You shoulda stolen the Silver Surfer instead and left the fucking gum. Then it’d be quiet.’ With the tip of my tongue I tuck still sugary Bazooka gum between upper right teeth and my cheek. Hoping to appear as calm as Sparky Lyle working a wad of chewing tobacco and hoping my voice doesn’t crack, I clear my throat. I speak slowly, deliberately, directing my words to those on the other side of a transparent fence.

“We are going to fuck you up.”

Across a slender stretch of dirt, 12 sun baked ears wriggle. 12 eyes squint through flickering sunlight.

They stare.

From our side of the standoff, similar glares peer across dirt. Both lines teeter upon a slippery slope. The unseen slope curves around a pool of anger, also unseen, centering the patch of dirt. At the midway point between two lines, where sunlight stabs at dusty earth, the ground seems to dip as the weight of the moment, the weight of tumbling sunlight, the weight of anger presses down. Though imperceptible to the naked eye, the world slopes just enough to unbalance two opposing lines. Sneakered feet shuffle in search of firm footing. Leaking from the two opposing lines, anger drains toward a sagging center. And clinging to dusty earth, pooling anger swells.

The surface of that unseen pool shimmers as a drumbeat sings a song as old as man.

Pooling anger ripples with each thudding beat. It is a beat formed from weekly if not daily parental smacks, slaps, and cracks, neighborhood fights, Peter Puck’s weekly introduction of the fisticuffs of the Big Bad Bruins and the Broad Street Bullies, televised riots, the expectation of street violence in Paterson, New York and Newark, assassinations of young leaders, monthly drills preparing for atomic attack (‘children, form a line so we may proceed to the nearest fallout shelter – the basement of our school – marked with a yellow and black radiation sign. Once there, sit, Indian style and cover your head with both hands. Now be quiet.’) and TV newscasts featuring the returns of body bags from a distant war.

In time to the ancient beat, I tap my foot against hardened earth.  

Just like the slippery slope on which we seek to maintain our footing, the ancient beat is felt as opposed to witnessed.

It’s here, though; right here.

‘I know it.’

Like the summer air young boys breathe.

Like the world of water our goldfish call home, we don’t notice the atmosphere; we live within it.

At the edge of an invisible cliff and in time to a well-worn beat, two sets of six boys are rocked by the lullaby of violence.

Familiar, the lullaby soothes me.

Tilting my face toward the source of lancing light, I am warmed by the sun’s stroking fingers.

By the Son’s stroking fingers.

My pulse pounds against a prison formed of rising ribs.

And with my cheeks stroked by the Son of God, I close my eyes and share a secret prayer, ‘Please God, I wanna be a soldier. So I can fight. For you … when I’m older, I mean. Today, so I can practice for when real war comes, please let me win this game of war.’

Silently, I stammer before my Lord, ‘And I know I’m not supposed to hate anyone, ‘cause hating’s a sin, but I really do hate Stan. I mean, look at him; he thinks he’s so great. I uh, I hate him as much as I hate the commies.’

And recognizing I probably shouldn’t be admitting to God I hate someone because it’s a Mortal Sin, I shift gears with my prayers, ‘But, You know all this and you know why I ha.. don’t like him – because you know everything, I mean – I only hate him ‘cause he hates me. Like how the commies hate us. And we hate ‘em back. And I’m really sorry about hating someone and I know I shouldn’t hate and I know that maybe I might hurt someone today with my war plan but I have to practice because I know in the future you’ll show me war. I just know it.’

I hesitate, ‘And so I’m ready for it when it comes, please let my plan work today and please, God, don’t let me lose. And please forgive me for my trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ I swallow before proposing a deal, ‘Um, because of what might happen today ‘cause of my plan if you let me win I promise I’ll say two extra Our Fathers – on top of the one I was already gonna say and two extra Hail Marys tonight. And I promise not to fight anymore.’ I know I can’t keep that promise so I reframe the deal, ‘For a week, I mean. OK?’

In response to a childhood prayer, sunlight cups my face. I receive the warmth as I might a handshake securing an agreement. ‘Thank you, God.’

Catching myself, I avoid making the sign of the cross. Inside my head I whisper, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’

And with The Creator on my side, I open eyes wide to take a measure of my advisories.

“You’re fucked and double fucked,” I warn them.

The swell of heat seems to set the line facing me adrift. Six chests rise and fall as glares speak without words. Sweating brows glow hot under summer’s oppressive hand. Gooey air sticks to skin. And like a spoonful of honey, it sticks to the insides of rising chests.

I stand quietly, feet firmly planted. My heart pounds in time to an ancient beat.

Among the opposing line of six, those fearful of violence shuffle feet. Those of us comfortable with our position stand still. Two sets of feet behind me and one set in the opposite line shuffle. Looking down, they kick at the patch of dirt. Dust specks jostle for position within bars of light.

I tilt my head to a pair of shuffling feet to my rear. Through unmoving lips I whisper, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Set adrift by shuffling feet, little puffs of dry dirt reach for the heavens.

Leaning forward I let a long slow gob fall from my mouth. Tinted pink with sugary Bazooka Gum, it stretches before snapping, the bubbled end falling to earth with a dull plop. Between my feet, a black dot blooms. And diving into dry earth, the dot vanishes.

From above, The Son hurls spears of light through rustling leaves.

Lingering puffs of dust sparkle. 

An ancient drumbeat shakes the surface of an unseen pool.

And sensing movement, I look up from my vanished bloom of black toward the hand of God. On the edge of a fort tucked high among the branches of a mighty tree, a crow alights. And spying me spy her, the crow tips her head before taking flight. Wings glisten under afternoon light, the colors muted behind a filter of darkness.

‘War,’ she caws.

‘War.’

The sound of labored breathing joins a chorus of gum chewers. They work their wads in time to an ancient beat.

From the center of the opposite line a well-tanned arm rises. At arm’s end, a middle finger points toward a place where a crow once sat. It is the middle finger of Stan, the opposing line’s self-proclaimed leader. His fingernails are short and rounded; chewed to the nub. The back of his hand is dirty, marked by a line of shiny black grease, perhaps from a bicycle chain. The sun sets the grease ablaze with colorful reflections, reminding me of the watchful crow.

Stan steps forward.

And in doing so he approaches an invisible fence.

We each stand two feet in front of our respective lines. Stan stares, swallows hard and takes a second step, this one smaller than the first. I match his step. Behind me, peers murmur as Stan lingers at the lip of an unseen pool. He keeps his right hand forward, holding his middle finger defiantly between us. His hand is now six inches from my face. Close enough to bloody my nose with a quick jab. And close enough for me to grab. His middle finger points upward past the crow’s recent perch toward a sea of rustling leaves.

Save for the grease mark, the back of his hand is golden brown. Stan is an athlete, perhaps the best I know, and summertime baseball (so far, he has struck me out four times this season), daily visits to the town pool and weekly yard work have bronzed his skin. If I didn’t hate him so much I’d think he looked like a TV star; like a favored son from the Brady Bunch or something.

My own freckled arms, thinner than Stan’s, dangle at my side. I wiggle long fingers. The finger nails on my fingers are long; better to scratch with. Considering the pouncing style of my favorite boxer, Joe Frazier, I wonder if I might knock Stan out with a single right hook to the side of his oversized head.  Behind a white Sears t-shirt, my heart pounds. Blood courses through the side of my neck, its pulse a familiar comfort. A shiver sweeps my body; as if brushed by an evil spirit. And forgetting my recent prayer, I whisper so only evil can hear, ‘Take me.’

Like a puff of dirt, the sensation soon vanishes.

Stan stares. His eyes narrow. They’re dull, appearing as two black jelly beans shoved into the side of a softening pumpkin. White teeth stand at attention, mocking me and my yellow buck teeth.

‘You can knock those teeth out,’ I tell myself.

‘Side of head or teeth?’

Above perfect teeth, sweat glistens across Stan’s pumpkin head. Shimmering beads quiver as they peak through a crewcut’s high hairline. From above his left ear a slender scar, about an inch long, reaches for his eyebrow. I’d never noticed the scar. I have to admit, it’s pretty cool.

A summer breeze carries Stan’s scent across dirt. He smells of boyhood BO. And Bazooka Gum.

‘What do I smell like?’ I wonder.

As Stan chews his gum, speckles of white saliva cling to the corners of his mouth. His lips smack together with a clicking sound. My face puckers in disgust. I remain silent. In the vacuum formed around my lacking response, Stan’s confidence grows. He smirks before breaking into a contemptuous smile. Legs astride, he stands cocksure before his peers.  He inches forward so his hand is directly before my nose. He tilts his head slightly to the right before securing his position of leadership, “Fuck you. And fuck your mother. And you know what? You’re not gonna fuck us up, dickwad. We’re gonna fuck you up!” His middle finger jerks up to punctuate the end of each sentence.

Behind him, eyes grow wide. Snickers drift past the fence and over an unseen pool.

Again I ask myself, ‘Side of head or teeth?’

“Balls!” I scream.

Without warning I step forward and throw long arms at Stan. Before he knows what’s happening I grab his extended arm and pull him toward me. My right leg rises to knee pumpkin head square in the balls. And having secured his flaying arms, I keep his hands at bay. He’s fast, but today I’m faster.

My knee stops moving as it flattens the area between his legs. His eyes bulge. Spittle flies from his groping mouth, spraying my neck and speckling my t-shirt. Fucking gross.

Bending at the waist, Stan lists like a sinking ship before tumbling. Our foreheads nearly touch. Our eyes meet; mine narrow with hatred, his wide with fear. Below watering eyes his mouth forms a silent circle. Gasping, he sucks at summer air.

Releasing Stan’s arms I let him collapse to his knees. A wad of pink gum falls to the earth. It is trailed by a shimmering string of saliva.

Members of Stan’s line rush forward, shoving me away to ensure I do not pounce upon their leader. His buddy and my newest friend, James, lunges forward with a wild punch, grazing my shoulder. I cock my right hand, ready to respond.

But I like James. And besides, he’s way too small to fight. Fist cocked, I try a warning,

“Watch it, douche bag.” James hesitates, and then steps back. He lowers his fists. James is feisty, and ready to drop the gloves no matter the expected outcome. Fists still intact, his own unflattened balls grow before his peers.

I hold up my hands, palms facing James.  “It’s cool. All done.” I nod to Stan, now lying in the fetal position, “Unless dick face has somethin’ else to say about my mother.”

Puffs of dust sparkle within beams of light as Stan rolls from side to side, moaning.

Holding his nuts, words leak from clenched teeth. “You’re a cheap shot artist. Just like your dirty Flyers (my favorite hockey team).” He measures his breaths before continuing, “I’m gonna get you for this.” He winces before concluding his threat, “You’ll see.”

I step back as he rises to one knee. He remains there, suggesting the skirmish is over. He hisses, “You’ll get yours you fucking ASSHOLE!” When he speaks little white specks fly from his mouth. They leap toward dry earth. At my feet, block dots bloom. They take their last breaths, dive, and vanish below the surface of dusty earth.

I shrug, “Well, if you didn’t talk about my mom like that you won’t a gotten your fucking balls kicked in.”

I point to the small patch of dirt separating me and Stan, “Oh and don’t forget your gum.”

Reaching forward Stand picks up the dirt-colored wad, cocks his arm and hurls it at me. The gum strikes me hard in the center of the chest and falls to the ground. It leaves a mark on my white t-shirt. I shrug before kicking the discarded gum toward a line of ants making their way to a black dot at the bottom of the tree.

Ignoring the strike to the chest I turn attention to those still standing. Again, I clear my throat, “Come on, are we gonna do this or what?” As James helps Stan to his feet, heads nod.

James yells from across the line, “It’s time for war, asshole!”

Above, a jet rumbles through a blue sky. Marking its path, it leaves a trail of white smoke.

Looking up, I shield eyes and search for the vanishing plane. I am distracted, however, by the sight of our tree fort, hovering 25 feet above the earth.

The tree fort is not so much a fort; it’s really just a pair of triangular platforms built with sheets of stolen plywood and pressure treated wooden beams (also stolen). The structure consists of two levels, one three feet higher than the other. They overlap, but due to sharp bends in the tree’s three main trunks, the two levels do not entirely overlap. Constructed around three beams each, hammered and then tied with rope to each of the main tree trunks, the two platforms are quite secure. Each of the two triangles measures about six feet at the largest end. Each is about eight feet in length. The slight overlap allows for a sliver of protection during rain. Not much, though. In the morning, the triangles cast sharp angular shadows upon the earth below.  There are no walls. There are no railings. Just the two triangles and a series of shelves nailed into the thickest of the tree’s trunks. The shelves hold nails, hammers, rocks, stolen Playboy magazines, and various tools, most removed from the local hardware store or our fathers’ workbenches.

During games of war the tree fort is my team’s home base; the base the other team attempts to capture. The base the other team must never capture.

The fort is accessed by climbing a knotted rope or by hoisting oneself (or a friend) via a second unknotted rope strung through huge pulley (discovered at a nearby construction site). At one end of the pulley rope, we’ve tied a large steel pail. It was stolen from the hardware store up town when I purposely knocked down a stack of motor oil cans by the front entrance while James grabbed the pail and ran out the store’s rear entrance.

The pulley is secured about five feet above the highest platform and is regularly used to haul up wood, friends standing with one foot squeezed into the pail while holding the rope, supplies like sodas and Wacky Packs, candles, matches and – when  war is afoot – weapons. 

After the fort was first built we nailed pieces of pallet board into the side of the tree to form a simple ladder. The tree wept when we hammered in long grey nails. The problem with the ladder was it was easy to climb. Everyone in the neighborhood was able to climb the makeshift ladder to access the fort. When trespassers accessed the fort we’d be forced to hurl rocks, demanding immediate exit. In turn, they’d spit at us, throw nails and dump our supplies on us.

So we removed the ladder. Actually, we kept the first ten feet worth of pallet ladder in place and yanked out the higher steps. To send a warning, however, at the 10 foot mark, we very loosely re-attached a couple of pallet steps with shorter roofing nails. Only after the second trespasser had grabbed a loose pallet board and tumbled backward onto hardened dirt did we rid ourselves of trespassers. Most of the kids in the neighborhood are unable to climb the knotted rope or aren’t strong enough to pull themselves up with the pulley.

Our fort was secure.

And ready for war.

High above the earth, the fort offers an advantage during times of war. Its height allows us to survey surrounding yards. From 25 feet, we see all who approach. We used to be able to look straight into our neighbor’s bathroom, a view recently blocked with a pull shade after Mr. Heinz looked out his window and saw me and James gawking at him while he took a dump. James and I agreed it was disgusting but we were unable to stop looking.

When war is not afoot, our fort offers a daily escape from angry parents, weekend chores, and neighborhood bullies. During long summer days, we climb up, sprawl across the platforms, warm ourselves under flicking sunlight, and dream of war.

Most of us hope to become soldiers, or football players or hockey players, or garbage men (every Wednesday evening we prowl the neighborhood for the treasures left at the curb on garbage night), but mostly soldiers. 

Across the street, behind James’ house stands another fort; a boxy fort, built four feet off the ground between four slender trees. It is a true fort, complete with a roof you can sit on, plywood walls and a window with wooden shutters you can peek through to monitor the yard during games of war. James’ father works in construction and he made sure the structure remained close to the ground. He was not about to allow kids to hurl rocks or get boners reading Playboy high above the earth or watch him take a dump or fall from a fort two stories high; not in his yard. James’ father had supplied the wood and I had helped James build the fort and paint it. Upon completion of the construction phase we hunted the neighborhood for paint. Our efforts were rewarded with the discovery of four unopened cans of dark green paint in a neighbor’s garage. The garage was open so we were able to remove what we needed. Other than the pail used to access my fort, that was the first time James ever stole anything. We became friends during construction. And he was getting good at stealing.

With the completion of James’ fort and with my tree fort we had all we needed for war.

Two bases; one to raid and one to protect.

In war you’re either America or the Commies.  And no one wants to be the Commies.

“We’re America,” I declare.

Having regained his composure, Stan puffs his chest, “Fuck you. We were the Commies last time. You be the stupid Commies.”

Offering an olive branch I step toward Stan. To his credit, he holds his ground as I suggest a way around the stalemate, “How ‘bout odds and evens?”

Stan grunts and cocks his right hand behind his back. His teammates step forward, forming a tight circle around their leader. They whisper strategies in his ear. “Evens,” declares Stan.

‘Fuck, I wanted to be evens.’

“OK.”

We face off. Ever so slightly Stan nods, signaling the beginning of the game. In unison we holler, “One, two, three, shoot!”

I throw out a single finger. Stan throws out two fingers.

“Scumbag!” screams Stan.

I raise my hands above my head in victory, “We’re America. You’re the Commie pinkos.”

My side of the line claps my back. Stan’s line stamps dirt and curses.

“Fucking Commies,” hisses James.

Again, I offer an olive branch. “Next time we’ll be the Commies. Deal?”

Stan folds tanned arms across his chest, “Promise?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.” I make a cross over my gum-stained white t-shirt.

Satisfied, Stan nods, “Fine.” He looks up and down his line, before returning attention my way, “Ten minutes?”

All about nods of approval, mine included. The two lines come together to form a circle around beaten dirt. In the center of the circle, in an unseen depression in the earth, an invisible pool of anger shimmers. We place hands on neighboring shoulders. T-shirts are sweaty, sticky. The circle smells of boyhood sweat. And gum.

James yells, “Ready?”

The circle replies with a scream, “Ready!”

As one, we yell, “One, two, three, War!”

As fast as a disappearing crow, Stan and his team rush from the yard, running across the street to gather at James’ fort. There, they’ll plan their strategy.

At the base of the tree my team stands silently. We wait for enemies to move out of hearing range. We squat, like the soldiers do on TV and whisper among ourselves.

“Can I be defense?” I ask the circle.

No one wants to be defense so everyone nods. They probably think I’m stupid but I have a plan.

Five faces look at me, “OK, I’ll protect the fort. You guys do whatever you want. You may wanna split up and get them to chase some of you while the others go after their fort, but it’s up to you.” Some heads nod as I continue. “But I’ll tell you this; our base is gonna be safe. Those fuckers are not getting this fort. No fucking way.”

My five teammates turn on sneakered heals and rush to the garage on the other side of our yard. I call after them, “Hey, don’t touch my catcher’s stuff! Or my goalie mask! I need that” Five boys waive over shoulders before entering the darkened garage. I hear stuff falling and grow concerned, “And don’t break my bike!”

Before I make it to the garage, my five teammates exit and leave the yard with armfuls of helmets, work gloves and baseball bats. They look like the soldiers Walter Cronkite talks about; shadows hunkered low fighting Commies in Vietnam. Soon they’re gone and I am left alone to guard our fort. 

Cicadas sing as I make my way to the garage. And stepping into the garage I find the light is left on and my Screamer Five Speed bicycle is knocked to floor.

“Assholes!” I wail.

I cover my mouth. ‘Fuck.’ That was stupid. I bang my forehead with an open palm.

Gingerly, I stand the bicycle and wipe off the curved handlebars with the edge of my shirt.

“My baby,” I whisper. After making sure no one is looking I bend to kiss the bike’s handle bars.

I then gather protective gear; a goalie mask marked with scars like Gerry Cheevers’ mask, catcher shin protectors, a catcher chest protector, Con Ed work gloves and a one foot by two foot piece of plywood. For some reason the plywood has a duck drawn on it. Making a single trip, I deposit the protective gear at the base of the tree.

‘What time is it?’ Looking at the digital watch received as a Communion Gift I panic. “Oh, shit!” I have to hurry.

With gear piled at the base of the tree I rush to the woodpile stacked behind the garage. Behind the wood pile dozens of red bricks are hidden. Any time I find a brick I bring it home. You never know when you’ll need a brick.

Bending low, I pick up a single column of bricks, “Holy shit, this is heavy.”

Making three trips, I lug bricks to the base of the tree. 12 should be enough. Using the pulley, I move the bricks upward to the fort, six at a time. “Holy shit, they’re even heavier than rocks.” When the pail is aligned with the fort’s first level I wrap the end of the rope around the bottom pallet step, releasing slowly to confirm the pail is secure. I work my way up the knotted rope, crawl onto the first level of the fort and unload the bricks. Placing a foot in the pail, I lower myself to the ground. I repeat the effort for the remaining six bricks before turning to the protective gear. On the third pail pull, the piece of plywood falls from a height of about ten feet, striking my arm. The pail falls, scattering its contents.

“Fuck!” The cut on my arm is modest but hurts.

I warn myself, “Don’t cry, you pussy.” Spitting into the dirt I make a little ball of mud and rub it into the cut. I don’t cry so I guess the mud works.

Completing the last pulley pull I climb up the rope. The last climb is a struggle and I barely make it.

Halfway up, I warn myself, “Don’t stop.”

Making it to the fort, I fall on my back, gasping, legs splayed across the lower platform.

Realizing a Commie might see my sneakers from down below I pull legs in tight. I catch my breath before smiling at the thought of 12 bricks. I’m almost ready for war. With great care, I line up the bricks along the edge of the lower platform, making sure they’re not too close to the edge. I do not want the Commies to see the bricks.

Emptying the pail of my protective gear, I lower the pulley rope’s bucket back to the ground. There it is meant to tempt; to offer what I hope will appear to be access to an unprotected fort.

I pull up the knotted rope and swing it over a branch in the hope that it’ll look stuck, as opposed to placed, there.  I don’t want James climbing up that rope. He’s a great climber.

It has to be the pulley.

I check my watch.

“Fuck!” Time is running away. Breathing heavily, I don catcher’s shin pads and chest protector and my goalie mask. Slipping hands into Dad’s gloves I rest on my back.  In final position, I place the piece of plywood over my balls.

And tucked behind 12 hidden bricks, I lie in wait.

The sound of my own breathing is heavy. Echoing within the goalie mask, it drowns out cicadas.

Though tempted, I do not look over the side. I do not move; even when gnats swirl about my face. Instead, I rest quietly in the center of the platform, staring at the leaves above and dreaming of war.

“Please God, let me be a soldier.”

Then, I hear voices below; jerky and hushed at first, then a bit louder.

Then a wail, “We know you’re up there fuck face.”

It’s Stan.

My heart pounds, ‘Please God, don’t let them hear my heart. Please.’

From below, mumbled voices.

“Are they up there?”

“They haveta be.”

Then silence, followed by feet shuffling about dirt.

Then, it starts.

A salvo of rocks is launched toward the fort. Many fly over me. Many strike the bottom of the platform. Behind a painted goalie mask I bite my lip hard, ‘Oh my fucking God! That hurts!’ I’m so stupid! I hadn’t thought about rocks hitting the plywood under me. I’d only thought about them landing on me. ‘Stupid,’ I curse myself. Oh my fucking God, it’s like getting punched in the kidneys.

Along with taunts, the rocks continue to fly.

“We know you’re up there douche bag.” 

“You’re dead.  You’re surrounded, pussy face.” 

Guessing I may be the fort’s defender Stan yells, “Hey, maybe I’ll go get cheapshot’s bike and smash it. What’d ya think, James?”

James hesitates, “I don’t know Stan. Let’s just throw rocks. I don’t wanna bust up his bike.”

Stan screams, “You’re bike’s history, pussy!” I hear him clomp across the yard as he makes his way to the garage. I can’t see what’s happening but I hear things being thrown about inside the garage.

It’s loud.

After a minute Stan returns to the base of the tree. He sing-songs, “Hey, cheap shot, if you’re up there, sorry about your bike. It got its spokes kicked in! A bunch of them! Oh and a rake and shovel and your dad’s stupid metal grill got thrown on top of it.”

My heart pounds. ‘Oh my God. Oh my fucking God! My bike. My poor Screamer! Please God, please protect my bike! Please, I beg you!’

Silently I begin to cry.

My poor bike.

Stan and James wait below.

They whisper.

James’ voice rises to a level just above a hiss, “If anyone was up there they woulda called time out. I mean you were pretty loud; with the bike I mean.”

More whispers.

Then Stan yells, “More rocks!”

Rocks leap upward, smashing against the bottom of the platform. Larger stones are arced over the edge of the platform, striking me directly.  My equipment bears the brunt of the attack, with falling rocks scoring direct hits on my goalie mask, stomach (protected by the chest protector) and balls, (protected by the piece of plywood) and shoulders (inadequately protected with the chest protector). 

Stan yells toward the fort, “I hope you like rocks, dick face!”

James joins in, “Eat rocks, dick breath!”

I lay in silence through the storm, absorbing blow after blow. My broken bike hurts the most. My chest rises and falls in anger.

Then, the storm subsides.

Whispers replace taunts. Guessing the fort is unprotected, Stan confers with James, “Hey, it’s gotta be empty, right? I mean, think about it.” 

James responds. I imagine him shrugging. “I don’t think anyone’s up there.” 

Stan laughs, “Oh my God, those shitheads left their base unprotected! How stupid can you get? He is so stupid!”

James does not answer. Perhaps he shrugs.

Then, silence.

Staring at the pulley rope I wait. Then the rope goes taut. It shivers. From below, voices jell into a coordinated effort.  Stan, the heavier of the two attackers, begins to hoist James up in the pail. “Hurry,” hisses James. “And don’t drop me!”

“Shut up,” hollers Stan. “You’re heavier than you look!”

The rope moves through the pulley. Then it stops. The pattern continues.

Pull, hold. Pull, hold. 

When I guess James is about half way between dirt and tree, I roll on my side. The sound of the slipping piece of plywood causes the rope to freeze. Without looking at my targets, I push the first load of four bricks over the edge of the platform. Protected by a goalie mask marked with scars my head rolls over the edge. The bricks hurl past James, standing frozen in a pail 10 feet above the ground. Two bricks strike Stan, one in the shoulder and one in the forearm, raised to protected his pumpkin head.  The two remaining bricks strike dirt with a dull thud. And when acting to protect his fat head, Stan releases the pulley rope, sending James to hardened dirt.

Nearly in tears, I scream over the edge, “That’s for my bike boner breath!”

Stan staggers backward, wailing. He turns to feel as I throw another brick. It strikes the back of his foot, knocking him to the ground. He lies in green grass, crying.

As James crashes to hardened dirt I throw two more bricks after Stan. Crying through my goalie mask I scream, “You’re gonna pay for what you did!”

James remains splayed across dirt, his arms and legs akimbo. The bricks sail over him toward their intended target.

James is crying.

As is Stan.

And holding a brick over the edge I yell to my rivals, “Watch out! There’s more where that came from! Tons more!”

Executing a perfect log roll, James moves away from the base of the tree.

I drop another brick.

Again, it lands with a thud.

“I got more!” I scream.

Climbing to his feet, James grabs Stan by the shirt. Pulling pumpkin head to his feet, James leads a disorderly retreat. The pair run from the yard, their cries and howls trailing behind. 

Save for the chorus of cicadas, the yard is quiet.

Pulling off the goalie mask I gasp. I’m crying as well.

From a place far away I hear a steady drum beat.

The familiar sound soothes me.

Wiping away tears I think of my wounded bike.

“Don’t cry,” I tell myself.

Catching my breath, I take time to organize remaining bricks and gather some of the rocks that landed on the platform. “They may come back,” I tell myself.

Tonight, when Dad returns from work, my successfully executed plan to defend our fort will be rewarded with the belt; first the leather then – when I refuse to cry – the buckle. But as of now I do not know of tonight’s punishment. Now, I am but a boy, 25 feet above the earth, warmed by the Grace of God.

And warmed by reaching light, I sigh.

Our fort is safe.

Returning to my prone position I stare upward. Sunlight flickers through rustling leaves.

“Thank you, God.” And as the hand of God strokes my face I close eyes and dream of war.

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