When you're a kid, you know things. You know things your parents are never going to know.
Like, for example, the kind of things that can happen on the way to the Handy Mart by foot. Now parents, they take the Chevy down Elam, up Ferndale, left on Elm, and then, right past the Morrison's big oak tree, they hang a right into the lot of the store. They buy milk and eggs, exchange greetings with the clerk, get back in the car, and whip the wheel out of the lot and head for home. It's purely practical.
But they miss a lot that way. They miss the point, really.
You see, a walk to the store was a nighttime ritual for John and I. If John was here right now and feeling poetic, he'd tell you that that walk was a metaphor for life. (We learned that word in Mrs. Harrigan's Humanities class.) A walk like that held peril and promise, ecstasy and agony, riches and poverty, villains and vamps.
Now get this. One time we were walking down Elm, shuffling along, bemoaning some new indignity suffered in our junior high school, when I spied a crumpled up twenty dollar bill not two inches from the sidewalk, technically in Bridget Hanson's front yard but effectively within the curtilage of public property, where it likely landed on the sidewalk and was blown by the wind into Bridget's yard. And even if it was in Bridget's yard, she didn't deserve it because she was a nasty chic with an attitude. Well, John fell on it like he was protecting his platoon from a soon-to-explode grenade. We debated whether to tell Bridget about our discovery, but not much, really. We kept it. Split it 50/50. You see, that made up for the time the three neighborhood thugs (well, senior highs) made us turn our pockets inside out, spilling all our nickels and dimes and quarters on the street and then made us pick it up and then took all our money. God gave it back to us. Equilibrium was restored.
We talked about that particularly embarrassing moment all the time, we did. John said next time he'd get his Dad's gun (unloaded, of course), stuff it in his pocket, and if we met up with the three delinquents, he'd brandish that revolver at them and say something like "beat it, or you're toast," or "make my day," something Clint Eastwood-like, and we'd watch them fall all over themselves trying to run away. That kind of thing sort of jump started our imaginations, and so for several nights we'd imagine ourselves superheroes, being able to pick up a car or breathe fire and just basically scare the beejesus out of those idiots. I think we almost talked ourselves into it.
Well, like I said, things happen when you walk. Like you might just meet up with Angel Simms. She lived on Ferndale, right next to Scotty something or other, the guy who fixed lawn mowers for a living and walked around half the time in his front yard in bib overalls with two miniature Chihuahuas hanging out of the front pockets. The guy that always wanted to talk about our sorry good for nothing high school football team about which John and I couldn't give a flip and he'd just yak, yak, yak on about the team and its pitiful coach while we were making every excuse we could think of to move on. But, back to Angel. . . . We'd walk extra slow past her house, hoping she'd be out, you know, maybe taking the garbage to the street or checking the mailbox or something. Angel was pretty hot, and we were hopeless, or nearly so. But we had our dreams. We'd consider what we'd say to Angel should she be outside and should she notice us and should she talk to us. Something like "how's it going, Angel," or maybe more nonchalantly, "hey Angel, didn't know you lived around here," and after that, we'd say. . . we'd say. . . well, we weren't sure what we'd say but maybe we'd claim that scripture verse then about "not worrying about what to say because at that time you will be given what to say" and something intelligent would just pop out, you know, and it'd be so beautiful Angel Simms would just reach over and kiss me and say "see you tomorrow at school" and that'd just be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Just the beginning. That's not exactly how John dreamed it, where I appeared as a more tangential bit actor. But it doesn't matter now anyway, since Angel never did come out and she moved away that Summer, quashing all our dreams.
Our favorite way to walk was to cut through the various backyards, beginning with Mr. Highfill's backyard which, though enclosed by an eight-foot redwood fence, was surmountable, given that a board in the fence was loose. We'd have to be careful though, as Highfill's bald head would occasionally pop up out of nowhere and he'd say something like "what are you boys up to?" and you just had to believe there was an accusation in that question, an insinuation, and I don't think I'm imagining things. I think he suspects it was me who shot the bottle rocket up the drainage pipe under his house that night about midnight. He'd be right.
Anyway, if we made it past Highfill we'd find ourselves in the backyard of the Rabinoffs, people my Mom warned us to steer clear of because they were Jews and were peculiar, like they had four heads or something. Whenever reference was made to the Rabinoffs their Jewishness came up, as in "Mr. Rabinoff bought a new Cadillac yesterday. Those Jewish people, you know. . . ." It'd usually trail off like that, like you'd know what they were talking about, that enough had been said. But actually, the Rabinoffs were pretty cool Jews. Their dog, Igor or something, was a terror, however. I think he didn't like Christians. He'd growl and lunge at John and I if he were out, gnawing on the mesh fence that contained him, foaming at the mouth, until Mr. Rabinoff came out and yelled something like "Shalom, Igor, shalom," and Igor'd collapse in a puddle of spittle, spent.
If we made it, and we usually did, we'd traverse the edge of the Rabinoff's driveway dropping out of the underbrush onto Ferndale where, one night, to our dismay, we ran right into Roxanne Anders sitting on the curb, a cigarette in one hand, a Budweiser in the other. Thirteen year old Roxanne put the fear of God into John and I, so we tended to avoid her. The best way I can put it is that she was interesting but scary, the kind of girl that if you got mixed up with would mess you up real good, like a teenage version of the sirens of waywardness mentioned in Proverbs. So there she is, striking a pose in her short shorts and halter top, and John and I instinctively sped up and kind of grunted at her as we passed hoping she'd leave us alone. But it was too late.
"Hey Purcell, Maddry, where're you going so quick?"
"Hey Rox," I said.
"How about a beer?"
"Nah, I gotta get to the store."
"Come on. Sit down right here, both of you. I need to talk to you."
I felt my defenses crumble. I sat down on one side, John on the other, and for the next 45 minutes Roxanne recited a litany of troubles with her parents, all the time leaning in close to me, putting her hand on my knee, blowing smoke in my face, some musky perfume enveloping me. I couldn't even say anything much. Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt feverish. I knew I had to leave. If we stayed we'd be playing spin the bottle with Roxanne before you knew it and with our luck we'd be standing in the middle of the street in our undershorts, Roxanne fully clothed, and her old man would come out with a shotgun. And that'd be that. Dead kids in underwear.
"Holy cow, I gotta run!" I jumped up and took off up the street, John in tow, Roxanne yelling for us to come back, that she wasn't finished. Sure she wasn't.
But that's what I mean. Anything can happen. Peril mixed up with promise. Sin and salvation. That walk was full of implications for life, missed opportunities, wondrous providences. It's all right there, if you just looked for it.
John moved, you know. He's a weatherman. Last I heard he was living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, living in a pup tent in a KOA campground.
Angel Simms works at Target and is still hot. Roxanne Anders went to pharmacy school, putting better use to her knowledge of controlled substances. And Scotty's been dead ten years now, buried in his overalls as he wanted, right next to those Chihuahuas. The Koreans took over the Handy Mart. They're planting a Korean Presbyterian Church in the old Harris Teeter building.
When my Mom died, Carla and I and our three kids moved into the old house in the neighborhood. I'm the mailman here. On good days, I still like to walk the route past familiar landmarks and be thankful for my blessings, that "behind a frowning providence," as the hymn says, "He hides a smiling face," that somehow all that stuff that happened back then was a part of a great big mysterious plan God has for us all. That doesn't explain why John's living in pup tent or why a chic with looks and brains like Angel ended up in a dead end job in Target or why those guys took our money, but I can live with all that mystery. I don't require an explanation for Acts of God. That's providence. We just have to look where we're going. That's our job.
When you're eleven, you don't always know these things. When you're a kid, you just can't know some things that parents know.