Lovely, Dark and Deep: A Path Through Childhood

the pathThis is me, walking on the path that I used to walk to grade school every day – a small Catholic school in a small town in southern Illinois.

The path is hardly discernible now, all grassed over.  I guess not many kids use it these days.   It looked a lot different back then –  wide and dirt-brown and rutted from the wheels of a thousand Huffy Thunder Road bikes.

The path is a few hundred feet long, and back then was screened from the road by a lot of trees.  It travels behind a dozen or so houses and dumps you out on the playground, which is also much changed from my childhood.

Back then, the playground was a magnificent affair, almost as good as some fairgrounds.  It was a hundred yard long slab of concrete that bordered a huge grassy area that featured a baseball field in three corners; you could hit a home run from any of them and not interfere with the other two games.  There was a  basketball court in the fourth corner.

The  playground equipment – or ‘rides’ as I thought of them- were towering, sturdy, metal and were kept well oiled, a Kingdom of Fun filled with monuments to adrenaline and joyful screams released into the wide open Midwestern sky.

There were, in order: flying swings (the big ones), a merry go round, another flying swings (medium but faster), another merry go round, still another, smaller flying swings, a set of monkey bars, a set of four wooden seesaws, and two sets of regular swings – some with black rubbery U shaped seats, some with blue rubber bench seats, all with thick slightly oily chains that I couldn’t wrap my fist completely around until eighth grade, when I was, according to the hair-tossing Queen Bees,  too old for swings except for the occasional nostalgia ride (especially if boys were present).

Last in the line-up were the slides: one big, one little.  The big one was slick and smooth metal with a double dromedary hump that flashed warningly in the sun.  During hot months the girls in their uniforms hung back, protective of their bare thighs, while the boys took the first turns, often bringing waxed paper from their lunch bags to slick it up.

This was my first experience with both flirting and chivalry, the fifth grade boys working sweatily along the shining, slippery length, bracing themselves on wide-spread knees, then standing by with proprietary smiles to watch the girls slide screamingly fast over the humps and fly off the end, printing palms and knees with gravel.

But no more; the slab is gone, the stern-looking metal rides disappeared, all replaced by kinder, gentler stuff made of wood and cheap colorful hollowed out plastic, the kind of stuff you glimpse from the highway as you drive through the Midwestern landscape, stuff that squats in every backyard in plastic fantastic primary colors and shapes declaring in protesting, wheedling voices “I’m fun, no, really!”  I’ve seen too many to count, though I  have never once seen a kid climbing on one of these affairs.

I was not surprised, not really.  Modern parents prefer safety over fun and are positively allergic to the sight of kid blood, and tall fast metal rides sitting on concrete means plenty of kid blood spilled from knees, noses, palms and elbows. Modern parents also like things to look either attractive or controllable, preferably both.  They would have looked on that old playground with fear and disapproval, and used words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘over stimulating’ to make their case.

The school officials would have listened thoughtfully, perhaps thinking words like ‘liability’ and ‘indemnification’ and agreed, and one of the parents who knew someone who knew someone maybe brought brochures to a meeting, brochures with big colorful pictures of the redwood activity center, the bright yellow plastic swings that wouldn’t go high enough to twist the chain into a metal braid that would unwind with dizzying speed, and the bright blue plastic slide with too much friction for a kid of more than 20 pounds.

Ugly, the modern parents probably thought, looking at all that metal and concrete, and to be fair, to  their eyes, it probably was.  The treeless slab with the rides rearing up into the sky had a kind of pragmatic beauty you had to be a kid to see. They were forbidding looking, and that very forbiddingness called to us, promising speed and excitement, a total release from the overheated classrooms and the droning teachers.

A kid sees a line-up  like that and words like danger and injury are as distant as adulthood istelf.  A kid sees those metal giants and it’s all about which ride you can get to first, and which one you’ll do next, and who’s doing interesting things on the monkey bars.  I once walked across the top of those bars, a feat no boy would attempt; a teacher broke from the adult huddle to stroll over and tell me to get down from there before I hurt myself (later, I walked one of the metal banisters outside the school door – a much easier feat –  and of course fell, acquiring a Canadian-sunset-colored bruise on my inner thigh the side and shape of a baby’s head.)

Standing there in my forty-five year old body looking at the colorfully safe new playground,  all I could think of  was  how the sun used to reflect off the metal of those rides; how in summer the metal flashed here and glinted there, how in fall it shone with a dull silvery gleam.

Recess was at noon, and on sunny days we’d gather around the scorching-hot central turning wheel of the biggest of the flying swing sets, grab-turn-squeal-release-repeat until the air had cooled it enough we could turn in earnest  so that the kids on the swings achieved total centrifugal velocity, the brave ones flinging themselves off to  belly flop into the grass (or, in some memorable cases, onto the concrete).

Back to the path.  The entrance from the street, a modest hill just out of sight in this picture, was more pronounced then – tall enough to get some decent air for the more daring bike riders, sending them shooting across Jay Street to where the path continued for another quarter mile behind the yards of the houses belonging to people my parents knew, houses I passed and entered the front way, the street way, every Halloween.

There were the Lutz’s, who always handed out homemade treats.  Old Celeste and her son Tom, a tall thin blade of a man who was in his thirties or forties  or maybe older (it was hard to tell) and profoundly retarded – Hershey bars every year, with Tom doing the honors.  The Veneers who favored pixie sticks and Bit O’Honey, whose mom dated Dave, who drove a convertible.

No one  seemed to mind the path that generations of us had carved at the perimeter of their yards.  No one ever yelled at us to get off their grass.  Maybe some of those homeonwers  walked that same path as kids (a thought that never occurred to me til just now).

The path was a daily thing for me; I took it back and forth to school, to cheerleading practice, to softball and soccer practices and games.  My friends Lisa and Paula lived in houses along the path, one at one end, one at the other; we could often be seen walking three abreast, satchels slung crossways across our green plaid jumpers, sharing out the Wacky Wafers and talking about who was cuter, Donny Schaeffer or Mike Lauko, or avoiding pretty Irish-eyed Kelly, the mean girl Queen Bee with her thin legs and mercurial approval, her shiny Breck girl hair and sharkbite smile.

I once thought we  – the popular Kelly and the lowly I –  found a commonality in shampoo;  both our families used Prell, a thick green substance that surges a hundred miles below the earth’s crust, and is gathered by elves who carry it by the steaming bucketful from smoking craters deep into caves where it is cooled, bottled labeled and shipped.  It smells like an industrial-grade laundry but provides an excellent creamy bubble good for sculpting the hair into a Mohawk, or a single tall point, or  a many-spired punk ‘do.

I extolled the pleasures of Prell but  Kelly only scoffed.  “It’s way too harsh on my hair,” she said. I knew the word harsh, of course; I’d read about harsh winters, and even harsh words.  But I was surprised to hear it used this way, and knew immediately that Kelly knew things about being a girl, about being a pretty girl, that I, also pretty but not as popular (and was this why?) did not.

“I make my mom get Wella Balsam,” she went on confidently, and I was struck silent with amazement at the difference between her household and mine. It would never have occurred to me to ask mom for a different shampoo just for me;  I could well imagine her reaction to my explanation of the harshness of Prell on my locks – either sarcastic amusement, or defeated indifference, depending on whether the last fight with dad had yet cleared the air.

The path was one of those unremarked-on constants in a kid’s life, like the tree at the corner of Stevens Street and Foster Street with its octopus branches that made it perfect for climbing. We used the path  a lot, though not exclusively; sometimes you just wanted  to ride your bike. Other times the street was preferable, for example walking to softball practice at eight on a Saturday morning when the grass to the side of the path would be soaked wet with dew.

It was one of these mornings the path came to my rescue.  I was dawdling along, on my way to pick up Paula on the way to practice.  Eleven going on twelve, I was small for my age, and obsessed with softball: I was focused on my glove, which was new and stiff and, thrillingly, red. The pocket had been well-oiled by my dad, and I was busy breaking it in – repeatedly slamming the ball into the webbing and then bending it around the shape of the ball, hoping to remove some of the stiffness before I had to start fielding grounders with it.

I turned right onto Foster Street, maybe waving at Tom – who was always peering out at the street between the sheer white curtains of Celeste’s front window –  but maybe not (sometimes he scared me).  I’d turn left on Jay Street, stop at Paula’s house and we’d take the path the rest of the way: practice was always on the first field to the left of the playground.

I walked slightly to the left of the center of the road, as is the way with kids in neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone; when I heard the car coming behind me I automatically drifted to the gravelly shoulder.  The car passed me, and something about it’s speed- a touch too slow – made me glance up.

I was expecting to see the smiling face of one of the adults in my life, a friend of my parents, perhaps, taking his girl to softball practice, the window unrolling to his jovial “Hey there, hop in, Sandy!”

Instead, I looked directly into the eyes of The Pervert.

The Pervert was a man in his mid thirties or early forties, with pale doughy skin, dark twitchy eyes and brown hair in bangs and a moustache.

I first encountered him years earlier, while delivering Avon booklets after school for my mom, a task that earned me a nickel per booklet.  I would fill my bike basket with as many as eighty booklets, then drop them in mailboxes for a three mile radius.  I would park my bike in a friendly-looking yard, then deliver booklets to the next five houses up, cross the street and deliver books to the houses parallel,  then back to my bike to pedal up another block and repeat the whole process.

The very first sighting was on Sheridan Drive, about a mile from home.  I was walking down the sidewalk of a house I’d just delivered a booklet to, and a passing car slowed.  I saw the driver bend forward and lean towards the window to get a look at me; I even started to lift my hand.   Then I saw his face – no one I knew – and stopped, but not before I’d registered his look:  alert, tense, somehow excited.  There was something wrong with that look, and I quickly walked to my bike and rode purposefully away in the opposite direction.

I saw him from time to time after that; his car the dull maroon color of old blood, a small four door sedan that was a little old-timey in the same way of the funny little Rambler of my neighbor.  And each time I saw him, he’d do the lean forward and out thing, letting me know that he was seeing me, letting me know that he was thinking about seeing me.  Had maybe even been looking for me.

I told my sister about him, and we laughed about it.  He scared me a little, but I never bothered telling my parents –  being a little scared is different from being frightened.  That changed the day he actually followed me on my bike instead of slowly driving past;  I was only a few blocks from home, and I pedaled fast, hearing his car breathing behind me, keeping a short but steady distance between us.

I whirred down the gentle hill on my street, the one that came just before my house, cutting directly into the yard instead of going into the driveway, thinking even as I did this “Now he knows where I live!”

“Dad!” I shouted from the yard.   I leaped off my bike, not bothering with the kickstand, and ran for the door.

Something about my urgency must have told The Pervert that the jig was up, that the long slow predator’s dance I’d unwittingly engaged in with him was over, that I was now about to Tell.   He sped up and drove away, the engine making a revving sound, a sound of anger and power that kicked my fear up another notch.

My dad called the police and they came, the cruiser parked in front of the house drawing our neighbors to their porches and driveways.  The phone rang a few times while I talked to the officer, my dad sitting nearby. I heard my mom reassuring the callers that everything was fine, that I’d been followed.

Funny, but I don’t remember much about the questions the officer asked me.  I do remember my father’s surprise that I’d seen the man before, and waited so long to tell them, and how I shrugged, unable to articulate the foolishness of such a parental expectation, that kids would report the minutiae of something almost but not quite happening, that kids would want to make a story of such a thing, a story that would only result in boring questions and maybe even restrictions.

I did not have the words to tell dad how such a story could be told in a way that reduced it all to a loser dubbed The Pervert, and how that was preferable to telling it the way it happened, that a man drove by me, and there was something in his face, and every time I see him it’s stronger, that something, but I don’t know what it means, just that it has something to do with me, something that makes me want to run.

I also remember voicing my fear to the officer, that the man could find me now instead of just cruising the neighborhood every few months and happening to see me (it didn’t occur to me that the man might actually be searching me out, though the officer probably knew this was the case).

The officer said the man probably wouldn’t be back  – which I didn’t believe, having looked into the man’s sneaky-excited eyes.  The officer also said that the squad car he was going to send around to patrol the neighborhood would likely scare the man away, which I also didn’t believe, because I’d already registered that the man did not come by on a predictable basis, but only every month or so. If I didn’t know when I’d see him, the cops wouldn’t know when to come around to scare him.

The excitement died down and there were end-of-school, beginning-of-summer things like Field Day and the last-day-of-school parade down Main Street, and the county fair.   Summer vacation meant three softball leagues, recreation camp, and long endless days down by the creek, or wandering on my bike.  Time passed, and in the way of kids, I forgot all about the incident.

Maybe two years passed before I saw The Pervert again. I sometimes wonder what happened during that time – had he found another girl to follow, did he finally find the courage to do whatever it was he thought about doing while he was driving the kid-clogged neighborhoods in slow vulture circles?

I don’t know.  I only know that when I looked into his eyes on that morning, I saw something that jolted me past fear and straight to terror: I saw recognition.  Recognition and his deep, flaring excitement.  He remembered me, and his remembering, after all that time, sparked my own.

It was then I noticed the car – it had been painted, an amateur job but good enough to change the color description from dirty blood maroonish to dusty beige, the kind of color you never look at twice, a color that made the bangs and moustache and eyes of The Pervert seem even  darker than I remembered.

Things happened fast.  Even as The Pervert recognized me he slammed on his brakes.  I watched, open-mouthed, as he turned left into the closest driveway – the one next to Celeste’s –  and began backing out.

When he completed that V, his car would be facing me, standing there shivering in the early morning chill in my blue shorts and t-shirt,  my blue baseball hat with the ponytail hanging down my back, my red sneakers with the word Home on one toe, the word Run on the other (and all the Major League Baseball logos running along the outside rubber sole, National League on the left, American League on the right: how I loved those shoes!).

I let the car get pointed my way, even rolling a few feet, before I bolted – not away from The Pervert but toward him, cutting diagonally across the lawns and then slipping between the houses through the back yards and to the path, where I ran as hard and fast as I’ve ever run, silently, my right arm pumping, my glove big and bulky on my left hand, still closed stiffly around the ball inside.

Three hundred yards and I was at Paula’s, startling them with my pounding on the back screen door.  I pushed my way in and they asked me, wide eyed, what was wrong.  Breathlessly I told them about the man following me,  how I’d seen him before, how the police had had to come, how he was back, after all this time.

I was too young to articulate the rest – how he’d recognized me, and how he’d changed, and not just the color of his car. He was bolder now, more sure of himself, no longer willing, or needing, to play cat and mouse. How ready he’d seemed to see me, how ready he was to act.

I was too young to articulate these things, but my eyes must have had an eloquence equal to The Pervert’s, because Paula’s mom seemed to understand everything, just like that.

“Stay here,” she ordered.  “Don’t go outside.”

She marched out the front door and we watched from the picture window as she walked halfway down the sidewalk and then stood, hands on hips, looking up and down the wide, quiet, early morning street.

Then she walked, very deliberately, all the way down the sidewalk to the street, and followed it’s curve around her house to the driveway, where she could view the intersection of Whitlow Drive and Jay Street. She looked for a long time, then came around to the back door, the one I’d so recently and frantically pounded on.

Paula’s mom was a tiny woman, and, at fifty-something, an unusual older mom in that place and time.  I’d never seen The Pervert outside of his car and  though I knew he was bigger, younger and stronger than Paula’s mom, her actions – righteous, sure, angry – suddenly made him seem smaller and weaker than she, because he was a man who would shrink from open spaces, from bright light, a man who would not meet the eyes of other adults, especially parents.  A man who could only be made strong if I helped him, by keeping his secrets.

“I’ll walk you girls to practice,” she said. Paula and I bumped together, nervous as colts, as we walked, exposed, across Jay Street. Once on the path I felt safe;  if The Pervert passed by, all he could do was look, and he’d see that I was with an adult. That I’d told, once again (a thought that raised a tickle of fear).

After fifty feet or so, the path became shadowed with trees, and took a small bend to the left, so that we were no longer visible to anyone on the street, even if he stopped his car to take a longer, more intense look.

At practice, Paula’s mom told the coach about the man.  I described the car color and shape, the coach nodded and told Paula’s mom she’d keep a lookout, but I was no longer nervous. I was a practical girl, soothed by practical things like the crowd of girls I was among, and the two hundred yards of grassy field between the ball field and the parking lot.

Besides, instinct told me The Pervert wouldn’t be stupid enough to get caught circling his car in a parking lot bordered by a school and a church.  Whatever he’d been doing in the years since the squad car outside my house, it had made him both smarter and warier, I was sure.

I never saw The Pervert again, though I thought of him two years later, when a girl named Liz, another freshman at my high school, went missing.  Her body was dumped, naked and dead, strangled by her own underwear, in a woods on the east side of town.  The murderer was quickly caught, a man decades younger than The Pervert, a man who had not learned to become wary and smart but who bragged of his crime against a girl who did not have the luck of a familiar escape path;  a man who, once arrested, weepingly confessed.

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