Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Games We Play

There are games I play on our walks. Like when you were a kid and someone taught you that rhyme, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back," and you'd spend the rest of your walk nervously studying the ground in front of you, careful to avoid even the smallest of wrinkles in the sidewalk. It was serious business. Who knew what would happen if you broke your mother's back. Certainly you'd be grounded. And then someone would say, "Break the Devil's back" and that was okay, so you'd spend the next five minutes stomping every crack you came across, that little extra force under your foot surely causing the Devil added misery. I also played a game in which I had to reach a certain location–the lamp post at the bottom of Iris Street, or maybe the painted rocks at the edge of the Brady Swallow's driveway–by the time something happened, say, a car passing or a cloud moving across the sun. If I failed something terrible would befall someone I loved. Or worse, the entire world. The first time was on an ordinary day. It was Spring, warm Spring and I'd taken off my windbreaker, rolled it up in my Snoopy book bag along with a copy of The Great Brain and my collection of Chinese Jacks, I was on my way home from school, and for some unknown reason the thought popped into my head that if I didn't get to the other side of the new tree Mr. Clean had planted next to the sidewalk by the time the school bus passed something terrible would happen. So I sped up as fast as I could without running–running wasn't allowed. From behind me I heard the rumble of the bus. We lived at the top of a hill, so there was the extra pressure and strain of the climb. The bus shifted into low gear as it neared the base of the hill and began its ascent. It was right behind me. I moved even faster, faster still, heart racing in my chest, the thump thump thump of it in my ears, my mouth suddenly dry, my book bag unnaturally heavy. Big rumble I could feel beneath my feet in the sidewalk as it rattled nearer. And then, just as it was upon me–I could hear the sound of children through the open windows–I reached the sapling and peril passed along with the bus, a glowing yellow monster that I'd dodged, a feeling of triumph, a release of tension in my chest like after completing twenty chin-ups while Coach Lucky and all the boys in the entire fourth grade watched. Just like that. At first I didn't know anyone else played. I didn't even know I played, until Mrs. Nuttle, the librarian, recommended a book about a little boy who had to perform similar tasks, like maybe touching a series of mushroom caps in a certain order, or crossing the creek on his way home before he heard the song of a meadowlark, and if he performed the task, some disaster would be averted. He practiced and practiced and one day, when he was very good at the game, an old stump swung open, revealing the entrance to a secret underground world where he was required to use his skills to save the people who lived there. There were no rotted out stumps in the yards I passed on the way home and I certainly didn't believe in secret worlds, but then neither had the boy in that book. My breath caught with each new page and it was only during my sleep-over when we were all confessing secrets that I admitted it. Shane Grow had shot out the side-view mirror of his uncle's new car with his air rifle. Paul Hunt, my best friend, had found someone's lunch ticket on the playground and took it, and when Marrianne Gunnell began crying because it was lost, he was afraid to tell for fear they'd think he'd stolen it, so he kept it. Todd Bell and his older brother Travis, who came from a good Mormon family, had sneaked sips of their father's beer, which even he had to sneak. What a bunch of little delinquents we were. But after we'd played Bloody Mary and Light as a Feather Stiff as a Board, after Robert Galloway had fallen asleep and we'd put his hand in a bowl of warm water to see if he'd wet himself (he didn't), I confessed to them, Shane, Todd, Paul, Brandon Carter, Barry Wells and the three David's (Buffaloe, Dixon and Davis), that I'd been entrusted to save the world. They listened intently, not speaking until I was finished. A heaviness filled the room, a heaviness like when we'd played Quija earlier. But then Todd laughed and said he played the same thing, only because he was a wrestler–a state champ at that–that he had to pin his opponents in so many seconds or minutes, or the world would end. Shane said that when he and his father split their wood into kindling, he had to split so many pieces or he knew something bad would happen. We each admitted our own secret obsessive-compulsive disorders and proceeded to take off our clothes and streak the Mormon church across the street from my house. It was a relief to know the safety of the world wasn't in my hands alone but that my partners in crime had also been entrusted to prevent Armageddon.

I have a new game now, one that's not nearly as dramatic as my old games (there are no risks of spinal injury or planetary destruction) and it can only be played in those times when the world is cold but warming ever so slightly.

I like the crack of ice. A nice solid strong crack, like something breaking that shouldn't be broken. Like a record album. Or the crunch of a crisp Autumn leaf underfoot. After a storm, when the weather turns warm and the snow has begun to retreat, leaving little ledges of ice along the edges of the sidewalk, I like to walk on those ice lips and hear them snap, my weight causing them to shift and release beneath me resulting in a satisfying crunch. Tonight, at the park, an entire section of sidewalk had frozen over only recently, and it was so smooth and transparent it was hardly visible until we were standing on it, sliding across its remarkably flat surface. It had nearly completed freezing and the ice layer was strong enough to mostly support our weight, but the water under it hadn't finished and was pushed around with each of our steps. Little bubbles of air, trapped near the top, glowed almost white in the setting sun. I stopped walking, spread my feet apart and bent slightly at the knee and let Duncan pull me. My weight created a million cracks on the surface but I did not break through the half inch of ice. Those tiny fractures just kept pushing before me, sometimes racing outward to the edge of the ice, like they were trying to get away but couldn't. And the resulting cracks were like trickles of sound playing across my ears and the silence of the park around us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In your writing I have found so many ways to think about the beautiful bits of winter. It is a constant challenge to me to not hate the whole season, and your luminous descriptions are balm on my windtorn nerves.