Go Back to the Park

Author’s Note: This story has been hidden under a dull title! I’m reposting it today.

I walked inside the rhododendron bush that was two stories high, planted years ago by the hunchback, the first person to live in our blue Ardsley house.

We could walk in to this rhododendron bush as if it were a room. I sat on the “horse,” the long branch with a saddle seat curve that we hopped up and down on to make the tall bush shake.

But today I sat without jumping up and down. I was tired of this horse. I wanted a real horse, and I knew I would not be getting a horse.

Then I heard a Saturday mower.

The noise met me in the shade of the rhododendron. I lifted my chin to it.

Somewhere in the neighborhood, sounding its presence like a cavalry horn, was the first mower of spring. It ignited the sullen kernels of adventure in my ears and I got off the horse.

I knocked on front doors and said, “Let’s go to the stream.”

We were in walking distance to the “new park” and the stream along its far edge. New houses lined the stream on the other side, and people lived in them, but the stream was ours because we loved it.

Its bottom was soft and cushiony. We loved to lift rocks and peek for crayfish, scoop minnows and longed for its elusive frogs. We laughed and fought in the stream, threw buckets at each other and bounced on the wooden slats and shouted things like “I got one!” When we were hunting, we were careful to lift rocks slowly so we wouldn’t disturb the silt, which might allow an escape route for the living treasures underneath. We didn’t wear water shoes because they didn’t exist. Nor did we bring water bottles. We drank the stream. Sunscreen was for getting a tan at the beach and we actually called it suntan lotion. This was a playground, a safe extension of home that opened its world for us, every time.

I stood barefoot, the water pushing my shins, one with the stream. Then I was alerted by the scrape of a window opening. Its slow slide was infected but I still didn’t expect the rush of arsenic from her voice.

“GO BACK TO THE PARK!”

I registered the scream inside my body. We all did. We became statues, carrying her heavy poison.

We looked up at her in the little window, squinting.

Then we looked at each other, and back at her. She was in the house. Her face was violent. But the stream didn’t belong to her. We noted this quietly to each other.

“It’s not her stream,” we said. “This is our stream.”

We continued our searching, but there was hesitance to our play.

“GO BACK TO THE PARK! THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY!”

Without speaking to each other we left our sneakers on the grass and knew to walk a little further downstream. We stopped in front of her neighbor’s house. She couldn’t say anything to us here.

I thought we were home-free but then somebody in our search party mimicked her and that’s when I felt afraid.

“I’M GOING TO TELL YOUR MOTHERS!”

We didn’t think she knew our mothers but I knew she went to our church. Even coming back from Communion her face was sometimes contorted with a soundless rage, perhaps her skull was hot, and I think she may have been a candidate for a pill of today but back then, we gathered our buckets and began a march downstream to get away from her.

As the arsenic cloud lifted from our march, someone suggested going to Africa.

We looked ahead of us. The houses would soon stop but the hills cupping our stream continued on. We could see the thickening. Together, we knew it was there.

“Yes! Let’s go to Africa!”

We kept going until the stream had long thin branches that draped over us, sheltering our march that had slowed from the water’s cool depth. I looked over to my little sister and the stream was up past her stomach, her elbows crooked in the air but she was smiling, so I smiled, too. Here, it was quiet, the breeze above us. We were nature’s guests.

When we saw a large green frog on the bank, we knew we had made it.

“We’re here,” I whispered.

Epilogue: At a donut gathering in the church basement, the woman from the window approached my mother. I watched her talk. She was animated in an angry manner, using pointy facial angles and expressions. When my mother raised her eyebrows, a sign for her to cool it lady, I turned on my heels and took another bite of my donut.
Frog

Jilda, the Dancing Nude

Our backyard was big enough.

It offered thick grass, a vegetable garden with chicken wire and a stack of firewood against the clubhouse. In the corner of the backyard sat a picnic table that sank into the soil on one end, a dog pen for John Doe and a tree stump with mint.

As we grew, the backyard went through several moltings. We called it the beach as teenagers and strategically placed Reynolds Wrap in front of our faces, especially if we were going out that night. On Sundays in summer we inhaled my father’s barbecue sauce on charred chicken legs while wedged in between each other and sitting sideways on the picnic table. As kids, we loved the clubhouse.

The clubhouse was a one-room house that the family before us took the time to build. No sink or plumbing, but a shelf area and a wooden floor on which we fought more than played. The clubhouse smelled of wood and dirt and suggestions. It changed along with us and became a rabbit hutch, a private nook for thoughts, a one-night sleepover experiment, a place to hide beer, but as children, we would sit on its front steps and decide what to do next.

Sometimes, great performances came from our thinking on the steps. “Let’s put on a play.” Chairs were dragged out but creative differences were the norm.

One particular day on the steps, when day camp was over, we couldn’t believe how hot it was. I wanted to swim under water with my eyes open and we had no pool. Our neighborhood friends had no pool either and we weren’t allowed to play on their rusty swings that went really high.

The hose? Nobody wanted the hose.

We slumped on the steps and pushed our sneakers in the dirt, making tic-tac-toe that nobody wanted either.

Then someone spotted Jilda over the fence. We peeked around the clubhouse.

Jilda was the lady who lived in back of us. She was putting out her sheets with clothespins. Ralph was her husband. All of a sudden, we realized their names were funny.

Somehow, someone suggested the word “nude.” We put those two words together – Jilda and nude – and it was a miracle!

We needed to laugh because we had no pool and it was so hot out and we were told to “entertain ourselves outdoors.” It was too early to play steal the bacon because we played that after dinner on Lincoln. So we started talking about Jilda being nude, and the words soon found music, and the music soon found new words!

And then we were off the steps and holding hands and dancing in a circle on the sunny grass, singing a song that made us laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. Even John Doe got into it.

“Jilda the dancing nude! With Ralph! They’re playing our sonnnggg!”

We sang and sang! We skipped in our circle and it was so fun and funny!

“HEY!”

“Jilda the dancing NUDE! With RALPH! They’re playing our SONNNGGGG!”

Laughlaughlaughlaugh!

“HEY! HEY THERE!”

We trickled to a stop and looked over the fence, up at Ralph.

Ralph was leaning out the second story window, his jowls were long and flappy and his face was red.

“STOP THAT!”

We sang again.

“Jilda the dancing nude! WITH RALPH! They’re playing our SONNNNGGGG!!!”

At some point during our ovations my mother received a phone call.

We were told to come inside the house and sit down at the kitchen table. My mother sent the neighborhood children across the street.

There is no memory of the exact words my mother said, only the vibrations of her emotion that leave on me the meaning of kindness and manners. When she was finished, she looked around for something to give Jilda and Ralph. We found a new game called Boggle but couldn’t find wrapping paper so our mother said to use tin foil.

My sister and I walked up to Prospect and our mother stood behind us as we knocked on the front door.

Jilda barely opened the front door. I thought she would be happy to see us with a game! We held out the tin-foiled game and said sorry.

She took the game and closed the door.

Clothespin on white sheet

Up Next, on June 19: A Ghost Story