Saturday, September 17, 2016


This is a true story.

It happened in the 70s when I was a boy.  I'm not sure when, exactly.  Time is fuzzy when you're a child; it's squishy like a dream.  Instead of years, we measure our childhoods with pivotal events: graduations, the births of those we care for, the deaths of those who cared for us, first crushes, last enemies.

One of my pivotal events was Star Wars.  It's hard to explain what Star Wars meant before it was a franchise, back when there was going to be only one movie, back when your dad had to make your Darth Vader Halloween costume out of a plastic bowler hat, a dust mask, a Giant Tinker Toy, and a flashlight.

Star Wars lit the universe; it made me hunger for other films, other places, other futures.  I waited with trembling enthusiasm for Jodorowsky's Dune, Zelazny's Lord of Light theme park, and the space shuttle.  But Dune shattered into a million pieces, someone embezzled Lord of Light's funding, and the shuttle came and went with the same disappointing finality as my dalliance with my high school crush.

Another pivotal event was moving to a new home.  We left my world, away from friends I thought I'd never replace, away from a school I could walk to, and a window that looked down on the street.  In their place, I got a wilderness of uncertainty I blamed it for every adolescent stumble.  My bullies spit on me, attacked me, tagged me with cruel nicknames.  To this day, I have nightmares about moving from one ghost town to another.

Moving showed me that life was no more secure than the faded construction paper teachers tacked to classroom walls to make displays about the alphabet, numbers, ants' tunnels. Once, a teacher put up a paper solar system, but put Saturn closer to the sun than Jupiter.  To this day, the universe feels wrong.

This happened between those events, after the flush of Star Wars and before the pang of moving away.  It is (as I said) a true story, but the details have faded to the weak colors of 8mm home movies transferred from medium to medium to save them.  Sometimes it's best to lose clarity.

Back then, I kept to my street and the one where my school and best friend lived.  Those two streets were safe.  There were enemies, of course, but I knew them; I knew the limits of what they'd do.  As I got older, my world shrank; I lived on a cramped island off the coast of a dark continent rumbling with mystery.  I yearned for something more.

I wanted to find The Store: my El Dorado, my Lost Dutchman.  Somewhere in the unexplored wilderness was a convenience store where I could exchange my dearly collected dimes and quarters for candy.  They sold Laffy Taffy (banana was the best kind) and Nik-L-Nips (sweet liquids encased in squishy, flavorless wax).

I only had a vague idea which direction it was in, but I was determined to find it.  I would leave my street and wander until I found it.

Half a block off my street was where safety ended.  The boundary of my safe zone was the door to a neighbor's chain link fence.  The ground must have shifted under the sidewalk; the pavement was cracked.  It's been 40 years, but I still remember those cracks.

I still hesitate when I walk over cracked pavement.  Step on a crack, break your mother's back.

I reached the corner and stopped, losing my nerve.  The houses were different.  I already felt uncertainty's vertigo, but didn't want to just turn back.  I turned and headed towards more familiar territory; at the next corner was my school.  One block of exploration would be a fine first excursion.

That's where I met the boys.  Again, my memory is fuzzy.  I remember there were two of them; I remember one was older, bigger than me; I remember they were both white.  I don't remember their faces, their clothes, their names, their ages, or their voices.  I remember what they did; I don't remember why.

If there was a reason.

They grabbed me.  I fought.  They held me down.  I cried.

Nobody came to help me.  Any adults watching would have shrugged and smiled.  A little wrestling never hurt anyone.  Boys have to learn to take care of themselves.

They laughed and held me face down.  They pulled my shirt up and told me they were cutting me with knives while they drew on my back with shards of plastic.

Then they let me go with a parting threat, a last gesture of dominance: I had to walk away slowly, not looking at them.  I couldn't do it.  They chased me down and grabbed me.  They pushed me to the ground, and it started over. This time I walked slowly.  This time I didn't look.

I walked back around the corner.  I walked back over the cracked sidewalk.  I walked back to my street.  I walked back into my house.  That's when I was finally safe enough run.

I never said anything.  I never explored again.  I never saw the candy store.

I still don't go far from home.  Cities merely twenty miles away are dark unknowns.  I never travel on my own.  My teeth clench when I'm anywhere new.

Whenever I see someone in a film head into danger with a curt "I can take care of myself," I give an involuntary snort of derision.  No you can't, I think.  But he always can.  He's the hero, after all.  It's just a movie; it's not real.

Thirty years later, travelling from one safe city to another, I drove near my old home.  My father was with me, or I wouldn't have stopped.

He followed me as I walked to our old house.

I remembered the new front door I broke after being told to be careful with it -- the glass shattered, and I ran to hide behind a tree, then trudged back at the angry call of my mother.  That was when I learned you can't hide from the inevitable repercussions of your actions.

I remembered the garage behind our back yard.  We had a car with a retractable roof that barely retracted, and white paint that formed bubbles you could crush to reveal rust.  That was where I learned there was a quiet joy in a musty room with old license plates nailed to the wall.

He followed me as I walked to my old school.

I remembered the time in P.E. the teacher told us to run to a distant tree and back.  I was last, gasping to a walk while she waited, shouting encouragement dripping with scorn.  That was when I learned I had deficiencies others didn't.

I remembered the time I rescued the red-haired girl (whom I'd pined for since kindergarten) from a boy who wouldn't let her go; she later told me she "liked" me, and I blew milk at her through a straw at her.  I didn't know what else to do.  That was when I learned my emotions could bubble up out of control and ruin things I desperately desired.

I remembered sitting on a playground structure shaped like a shoe and listening to the older boys talking (conspicuously loudly) about reaching their hands into the cage in a zoo to pet a tiger.  I remember how sweet they said Bengal tigers were.  That was when I learned there were people who knew me who thought the world would be better if I wasn't in it.

My father asked if there was anything else I wanted to see.  He'd been incredibly patient of my self-indulgent nostalgia.  As have you.

I told him there was one more thing I wanted to see.  I wanted to find that store.  I wanted to buy the banana Laffy Taffy and Nik-L-Nips I'd promised myself.  Old quests never die; you just have to complete them.

I turned off my street and walked in that same vague direction, not even knowing if the store would still be there.  About a quarter of the way down the block, I stopped and looked down.  The pavement was still cracked in the same place.

"I thought they'd have fixed that by now," I said.

We turned back and drove away.

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