by R Ross Johnston
If today were not today then it might be, instead, a certain bygone September day. Imagine for me the view of an enormous orange sun as it slides low behind Appalachian foothills. If you can see this slowly setting sun then you might also feel its residual warmth rising from a red brick street to your face. You contemplate the sensual contrast that is occurring at your face as the pleasantly warm air rises and mixes with the restless breezes that are intent to convey the cool sensations of a rapidly approaching autumn. Over your right shoulder you may turn to notice how your shadow defines a long and narrow diagonal that extends across the street until it reaches the trunk of that maple tree that stands tall just past the curb on the opposite side.
This street extends only one tree-lined city block. You probably would not realize that you are standing upon an island surrounded by the Ohio River or that the year is 1975.
Walk eastward along Florida Street, away from the setting sun. Background sounds of traffic, singing birds and barking dogs are clear and all around, although their sources are seldom visible. Closer and to the left, a lady can be seen raking the first leaves of autumn from her front yard. Notice the sign that someone has persuaded her to plant into the center of her carefully groomed lawn. It proclaims `McGovern for President’ from bold white letters contrasted against a red and blue background. So many tall narrow houses compressed to form the multi-colored borders that define this one city block.
Walk several more steps. You may look up to discover a young boy sitting alone on front porch steps reading a comic book. His parents are not aware that he is still wearing the same new clothes that he wore to school that day, a light blue and white plaid shirt and black double knit pants that match the color of the heavy eyeglasses that are sliding down his nose.
You notice that he is trying to hold pages flat against the will of the warm Indian Summer breezes and that his reading light is rapidly fading. Now that you have spotted him, just stop. He won’t notice you there but if you should approach more closely he will attempt to avoid an encounter. Watch him for a moment while I tell you about what he is thinking.
He has been reading about men who explored the oceans during the 14th century and about all their adventures and the dangers that they bravely faced. He has never seen an ocean or even a ship larger than a river tugboat. He is trying to imagine what it would be like to sail a vast and formless expanse of ocean to a place where no person has been before. He has read that there was once a time when uncharted waters were sailed to uncertain destinations.
His naive little brain is forming an image of the sea yielding passage with a constant white spray before the bow of his ship. His imagined view then turns to the trailing white wake as it clears astern. He notices how the sea quickly returns to its original form and he imagines that soon no trace of the passage will remain. He is about to contemplate how his ship must be rocking with the great waves and to wonder exactly where his ship may be bound when intruding voices disperse the evolving daydream.
Three of his young friends have suddenly appeared, standing before him. “Wanna play `kick-the-can’?” invites McCoy in a demanding way that really means, “You will play because we need another person.” Skip adds, “Yeah, I don’t have to go in until eleven.” Tommy Hamilton is standing there too, trying to look distracted, his arms folded across his chest. He has glanced down the street toward you and is wondering who you are and what you are doing there. A flat, “OK”, is the only verbal response from the seated boy. He tosses the comic book to the porch and follows the others to a nearby alley.
I must confide that I am no longer comfortable with our presence here. Still, I would like to share the grand finale to this September day with you. The game is commencing under a street light in the alley. And so it will be as it has often been, mindless screaming in the dark followed by the loud, piercing clatter of a tin can, negating what could have been a quiet evening for the neighborhood, as it careens down the asphalt accompanied by cheering and fighting followed by more mindless screaming. The neighbors protest the irritating local riot from their back windows. Their protests are not acknowledged.
We must now leave this scene to return to our time. And that little boy that I have just lead you to is standing before a gate that opens wide toward experiences that will alter the course of his life. His world is about to change a little. He doesn’t have a clue.
The children of South Island are happily unaware of the low social status that is assigned to them and to their families by people who live ‘in town’, such as by their fellow citizens of Middleport who live on the North Side or out in ‘The Grove’.
South Island has a reputation for crime that is well known across several states. It is common for men who are driving expensive-looking automobiles with out-of-state license plates to ask children playing on the street for directions to the local whorehouses or gambling establishments. Sometimes these men are stopped by the local police for driving the wrong way down the many one-way streets.
Ben Meets Christy
Ben lives from day to day, in the present. He has few memories of his childhood. Some of those memories that he does retain seem as though they may have happened to a different person. Ben believes that experiences that were shared with the most beloved people of his life possess an undeniable affinity to the everlasting. Such is his experience of a friend whose path took her far from him many years ago.
She lived near his home on South Island. They met one Friday after school. Ben would have thought that, were this day to be remembered, it would be for the Hell he knew he was going to catch over pair of black double knit school pants that he had ruined while playing kick-the-can until midnight the previous night.
Ben was walking along Broadway Street with his best friend, Skip. Ben and Ben usually observed the informal social class system of the day. They could walk by adults, older kids, younger kids and girls as if they did not exist. These two were often so involved in their own `stuff’ that they barely noticed people on the street who did not share their self-perceived status.
They were walking just a few steps behind a group of four girls from their sixth grade class at Madison Junior High. Ben knew them all except for one. She was rather slender with long blond hair. Something about her attracted Ben irresistibly. He had already noticed her at school. He had been reluctant to speak to her.
This day brought a distinct departure from Ben’s usual routine. Ben was suddenly struck with an overpowering desire to get the attention of the new blonde girl. Without warning, he walked up to the group and began to bellow, what seemed at the time to be, really `cool’ slang straight to her. Thankfully, he does not recall the exact words’ but he knows he was getting his material from Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Yosemite Sam. The term `Sweetie Pie’ did come to mind when he first recounted this incident.
The next thing he knew there was a loose circle of five all watching him. Ten eyes riveted upon his impromptu exhibition. He can still picture Skip gawking at him as though he had instantly grown a second head. And that blond girl was looking at him in a way that gave him the distinct impression that she was about to spit on him. She didn’t spit on him but she may as well have when she started to laugh with the other girls at his ridiculous and embarrassing behavior. Her reaction to Ben’s performance brought him back to reality with a sobering suddenness.
His face felt warm, which told him that it was most probably beet red. He turned his head to check the shortest path out and away. Skip followed as Ben made his exit across the street. While they completed their walk home Ben wondered to himself if there would be a tomorrow. Skip didn’t have much to say to him for the remainder of that day.
Ben spent a lot of time that weekend trying to invent some terrible disease that should be bad enough to keep me out of school all the next week, at least. However, by Monday he had recovered sufficiently to return to school. It was a day that week when the blonde girl spoke to him in the cloak room. She said something about how she had never met anyone as silly as him. Ben thought and pondered her words. He concluded that, “Silly is good. Silly is a relief. Silly is much better than stupid.”
They seemed to have a lot to talk about.
Ben walked home with Christy that day after school. He forgot to wait for Skip. They seemed to have a lot to talk about.
Her name was Christy. Everything she said seemed to Ben to be interesting as he watched her blue eyes express her inner energy. Christy explained that she had no brothers or sisters and that she and her parents had recently moved to South Island from Pittsburgh. She shared a lot about herself. She especially wanted to talk about how she was missing all the friends that she had left behind.
Christy told Ben that her mother worked for a local bank and that her father worked with chemistry for some company in New York. Ben related to her that he was also an only child with both parents working. They discovered that they enjoyed being together and they quickly became best friends.
As days passed, they spent more and more time together. They always had time for each other. No one cared to question the subtle bond that formed between them. Ben’s parents referred to Christy indulgently as his girlfriend and Christy’s parents called Ben her boyfriend. They seemed to consider the term `friend’ to be adequate. There was no doubt that Christy and Ben understood each other.
About Uncle Norman
Ben would sometimes go for a rides with his Uncle Norman. Ben’s uncle didn’t have any paychecks to cash or children of his own to teach. His world consisted of Daily Double, Big Perfecta, jockeys, and trainers. Uncle Norman would take Ben to the racetrack. Ben would watch the horses and all the people who were the stands and on the track with great interest. Ben would watch his uncle tear the losing tickets in two and drop them to the trash. Ben would always keep the program in close reach so that Norman could research the next race. He would say to Ben, “Need a starter for the old Buick Electra. Other days Ben and his uncle would drive over to Bridgeville. Norman would say “Northfield is slow today, so is Beulah Park.” His uncle would leave a stack of papers at a bar in Bridgeville and then drive to Middleport to pick up other papers.
Ben would wait in the car and play music on the radio, sometimes until after dark. One afternoon while they were driving a familiar route Norman said “Tomorrow I have to appear in court. These money problems are only temporary. Today, Whiskey Time is a long shot. That third race will put me in the green.”