we lived next door to a looming giant man with a white shock of einstein hair, a local judge. next to him were two dirty-fingernailed boys, jay and robert. divorced parents, and an layer of naughtiness, kept them from being our full-time friends. they had a yappy dog and their mom had a pretentious boyfriend. when the dog strayed from the yard, the boyfriend would stand on the edge of the driveway and command: "charles, halt!"
robbie lived on the other side of our house. he was the youngest in a family i would later associate with the television show "eight is enough." i think my mom had robbie's dad as a teacher in high school. robbie did not yet have his drivers' license, but he did have a motorized dirt bike. he spent hours each day tearing a dirt race track just inside the property line. nee-nneeeering that got louder when he had passed the raspberry bush in the backyard, was crossing the front of the house, taking a left and running parallel to our driveway.
later dean would come over and robbie would back his dad's car out of the driveway, leaving its doors open and the stereo cranked, and they would play H-O-R-S-E or "around the world" while joan jett echoed through the neighborhood.
sometimes we would sit on doorstep and watch. sometimes we would get kicked out.
one street over were the rowdies, or rowds: kids on this block had long greasy hair, leather jackets, out-of-wedlock children, and nicotene fits. i was as afraid of them as i was of:
*the old hermit who lived on the hill in the woods behind harriet bishop elementary school and allegedly shot kids who came into his yard;
*a gravel pit, affectionately called "the pit," which was filled with things called "drop offs." i assumed if you went into water with drop-offs, you would be sucked under the muddy seaweed and immediately be eaten and/or drown;
*our unfinished basement with steep wooden steps that led to a playroom with a fuzzy swatch of red carpeting. inside was a chalkboard where someone had written POLTREGEIST in large boxy capital letters;
matt, annie, elise, laurie and i were "the little kids" as opposed to "the big kids", who were my brother, matt's brother, annie's brother, and their leader and heartthrob to the pre-k sect, brian. [years later i would learn that the big kids referred to our next-door neighbor robbie and brian's brother dean as the "big kids" which i guess would make our "big kids" the "medium kids."]
our big kids would steal our bikes, leaving a ransom note stained in ketchup-flavored blood, signed "mr. x." we skittered around nervously those days, wondering if we were about to be killed by this dangerous bike stealer. we fell for this week after week after week.
"last time it was the big kids," we'd say. "but what if this time there really IS a mr. x?!"
us girls fought for the attention of matt -- charlie to our angels -- a sandy-blond with a bowl cut. he could flip his eyelids and turn himself into a zombie. he had a willow tree we would swing from, branches bowing, our palms ripping and a sandbox where one time a worm crawled into my shorts. matt would press his nose against the screen door to make a snout and say: "can christa come out and play?"
[as opposed to annie, who would later be diagnosed with a learning disability and have to go to transition -- an extra layer of school between kindergarten and first grade -- who would say: "christa can come out and play?"]
we took turns kissing matt, a reluctant chasee, in various bushes around the neighborhood. i was just a little faster than matt, until he got a pair of blue sneakers that he called his "fast shoes." one day matt stood on the sidewalk yelling: "i'm going to go put on my fast shoes, then i'll catch you!" i was terrified. i hid inside for the rest of the day.
matt's dad was from new york: a husky high school math teacher with a brooklyn accent, his colorful shirts unbuttoned to mid-chest. a gold medallion hiding in a thatch of black chest hair. "christa, baby," he'd say, listening to juice newton while washing the family's orange van with heart-shaped bubble side windows. "call me your uncle fred."
annie's family was long-limbed, lanky, deeply religious and strict. i woke one morning in her extra twin bed and heard her father reading the bible aloud to her mother. her older brother's knees jutted, his face hidden behind black-rimmed glasses. annie's older sister babysat us, but just once. when a shampoo commercial featured a woman in a shower, jenny cooed at the camera work: "okay, a little higher," she instructed during a camera shot up the woman's leg. "now lower," as it panned down her neck. when i tried this trick for my parents, they exchanged glances but ignored the bucktoothed underaged pervert in nubby pink footie pajamas.
annie, to the delight of the big kids, had begun responding to the command: annie, strip! i was sitting on matt's front steps when his older brother gave the order. "watch," he said to me. just then annie's dad called her home for dinner. faced with "christa, strip!" i thought about it, but then i went home, too.
elise's older sister took us to the municipal pool, one moccassin propped lazily against the dash board as she drove, the windows open, popping hubba bubba bubbles. while playing house one day, elise told me that she heard a story about a woman who gave birth to twins -- a boy and a girl -- and when they came out, the girl was pregnant.
"impossible," i said. "the girl hadn't gotten her period yet." "what's a period?" elise asked me. i heard her mom pause outside the bedroom door. "i don't know," i confessed. "but if you don't have a period, you can't do your income taxes."
we continued to play house, and elise said her name was going to be "doghouse."
i was madly, desperately, hopelessly in love with brian, the big kid. neighborhood events centered around his house. his mom had always just baked cookies, his older sister was always bronzing in the backyard. she was the most beautiful person i had ever seen and i always wished my name was cindy, too. brian's dad did auto body repairs in the garage. sometimes he would let us watch, but other times we crouched outside the garage door, peaking through ventilation holes as he painted cars.
the big kids took turns peeing in the drains in the shop, just like brian's dad. i think matt did this, too, just because he could.
brian had a tent set up in the backyard. the little kids were trapped inside, and he ran around outside, hitting the tent to scare us. i was peering through a webbed window just as he released a rock he had thrown to deke us out. i sat on the toilet sobbing as my mom surveyed the damage. "quit crying," my dad said. and i remember thinking "if i can't cry when i get hit by a rock, when can i cry?" i received two stitches and that night brian brought me a tiny stuffed hallmark teddy bear as an apology. i named the bear brian and carried it around in its original box, claiming it was allergic to oxygen.
laurie was my best friend. she was quiet, had long dark braids and a playroom filled with colorful plastic toys. i was standing on her driveway the day her mom came home from the hospital clutching a dark-haired pruny purple newborn, laurie's sister susan. the week before laurie's family moved to the other side of the planet -- duluth, minn. -- i came down with the chicken pox and was not allowed to go near her before they left. i gave her a monchichi as a going-away present.
other people came and went: for awhile we hung out with melissa from up the street. we played boyfriend-girlfriend, lounged in bean bag chairs in her basement. "now this is when the boy puts spanish fly in your drink so you'll kiss him," melissa instructed. and we all snaked beaded necklaces into coffee mugs. she knew a lot about love.
jenny h. was chunky with big glasses and involved in the local roller skating scene. she took lessons at skate country, wore a flimsy turquoise skating skirt, had pompoms on her laces and a partner named jack that she loved. one time she told me she was going to be a professional photographer. i wore knickers and a turtleneck decorated with strawberries, my red pageboy haircut parted in the middle. i looked like a cheerful little orphan standing under a tree. jenny sold the poloroid to my mom for a quarter.
my parents decided to build a house less than a mile away. up a few hills and along a path at the edge of a cornfield -- on second place. after we moved we referred to fifth place as "the old neighborhood." we maintained those friendships, crammed into my brother's bedroom playing monopoly. new house, same old rules applied: no talking. no giggling. when jenny h. snorted at something he had said, my brother looked at her without smiling: "jenny. you're treading on thin ice. and for a big girl like you, that's dangerous."
this remains the standard by which all other jokes are judged.
after we left, matt's family got a pool. i was in it too long and uncle fred told me that my lips were turning blue. annie's sister jenny got pregnant, then banished to the public school where the rest of the sex-havers went. elise's dad built her a fort in the garage. it was decked out with a couch and kitchenware. she stole his old tins of chewing tobacco, using the residue leaves stirred into water for a pretend tea that we really drank. brian dated a local model and his sister cindy got married. i drank coke at the wedding dance while a cover band played songs by alabama and the oak ridge boys. then she got divorced, then she got skin cancer. annie's brother shot himself in the bathroom.
it has been at least 10 years since i've seen any of these people. matt's girlfriend, then wife, now exwife lived a few apartments down from the one i shared with fannie. his brother derek, who grew to resemble morrissey, owned a coffee kiosk at apache mall. brian tended bar for awhile at the smiling moose. still cute, but a hipster version with silver rings of three of his fingers. elise and her husband hang around with one of my high school friends and her husband. i've heard they like to play spin the bottle.
i ran into laurie's mom when i first moved to duluth. she had digitally aged me in her mind and recognized me as the former five year old, as the once walking, talking, stringy hair, freckly chicken pox delivery system.