I consider myself lucky. I grew up in a time before childhood games became mired in registration fees. When McDonald was a farmer. When time was la-aazy. I remember spending entire mornings in my backyard watching earthworms slither in soft mud, then cutting them in two, thrilling to see them survive past certain death.
By today’s standards, I guess I was simply lame.
But my childhood neighborhood lies within me. Its territories are etched inside me like a hand-drawn treasure map, which still find me in my sleep. For instance, the alley that ran alongside my house had hollyhocks tall as turrets, visions of wonder and independence. The telephone pole outside my backdoor was a source of landmark, of olley-olley-in-come-free safety whenever we played ghost in the graveyard, or Seven-up, or Pirate Pete, or just needed a hang.
Adults were ever present in our lives. Mrs. Whitchurch, the imagined witch of the neighborhood, lived next door and had a koi pond where orange and black backs swirled—big enough to pet—which I did, which she screeched at me not to do, which I did anyway. Across the street, Mrs. Draggen’s bungalow fronted a botanical maze out back—where sky-high sunflowers and tomato plants hid me for hours as I imagined myself in snake-riddled dungeons or swashbuckling buccaneer ships.
Almost always alone.
“I see you lighting matches under your porch, Trisha. Bring them here!” Mrs. Basolo would yell, an arched eyebrow hovering over a discerning eye.
In my neighborhood, adults knew every kid by name and used them often. And I mostly obeyed them—because they were the law. Well, sort of.
More uncertain regions lay past the supervision of adult eyes.
The park offered immense, steel swing-sets—site of death-defying Superman leaps and a jungle gym where we dared and double-dared each other into head-bursting, half-hour knee hangs. Its wooden sandbox was a maw of splinters big enough to chew our butts off in one clean swipe if we weren’t careful just how we sat down. I knew to be careful. Careful of so many things.
Farther, past the other side of that park rolled the golf course, which brought odd-looking, plaid-pants-wearing men into view. “Get outta the way!” they’d yell as we ran criss-cross over the seemingly endless fairway. Beyond that park, below the golf course’s verdant expanse, however, ran the most dangerous region—the canal. A roiling river of menacing muck, which terrified us with its power and seduced us to its sides.
But above these neighborhood territories and the discerning eyes of the adults hung an irrevocable hierarchy of children, which contained its own danger, its own terror of authority and force. The real law, which bound us in ironclad castes. the oldest and strongest dictating to the young and the lowly.
Guess where I came in?
With the young and lowly. Of course.
Sally, my big sister, towered over me. She was big and thick and mean, and was close to the top in the chain of command. Her fists were the size of hams. Her hair was short—cut in the shape of a bowl like some twisted Prince Valiant. Oh, and she had this angry-kid mouth, which was curled into a snarl most of the time.
“Get me a blueberry popsicle, moron!”
And I would get her one—every time—because if I didn’t, she would simply slug me. Hard. Seemed like there was nothing I could do about Sally or her name-calling or those hams.
But one summer morning, I trudged along the alley leaning against tree trunks then wandering past telephone poles, waiting for the day to begin. When out of nowhere, this enormous shiny-blue fly zig-zagged past me. With nothing better to do, I followed it down the alley as it bumbled from honeysuckle branch to grapevine tendril.
Suddenly, it disappeared into an open garage door. Well. I shook my head in disbelief because this wasn’t just any garage. This was Sally’s. Imaginary. Stable.
“Don’t ever set foot in our stable, spaz!”
I could barely breathe. I peered inside. The only thing I saw was that fly bouncing in the back of the garage off a grime-smudged window. At first, I couldn’t make anything out. Then I held my breath and squinted real hard. And it all came into view: the tack, the blankets, the feed buckets, the hay-lined stalls.
Slowly, slowly, the fly’s buzz dissolved into a soft snort. And then they appeared.
Aw, they were beautiful. Fetlocks and flanks rippled and gleamed from years of Sally’s loving attention. I heard one snort, then another. Soon the whole stable was filled with the magic of neighing and whinnying and stamping and chomping. I closed my eyes and thrilled to the symphony of sounds around me.
In a flash, I opened my eyes because…ah, I remembered! There among them—the gray-spotted appaloosa, the golden-maned palomino, the majestic, eighteen-hands roan—stood Alibi, Sally’s Tennessee Walker.
“He’s got the most perfect chiseled star on his forehead. No one rides him but me. Get it, dope?”
I looked around to make sure nobody was watching. Then I stepped across the threshold. I grabbed Alibi’s bridle.
“He has a soft mouth, but you’ll never find out about that…sucker!”
So, I whispered softly into his quirky ear. “Easy now, Alibi…” so afraid I’d startle him with the sharp edge of reality I held in my hands. Carefully, I slipped the bit into his mouth—just like I had seen Sally do so many times as I spied on her from the other side of the alley. And he took it just fine. Better than when Sally did it. I rubbed his velvet muzzle. Then I saddled him.
His withers twitched wildly. He stamped a foot, so I mounted him neatly, steering him out into that gravelly alley, past Mrs. Draggen’s garden, past Mrs. Whitchurch’s screechy voice, past Mrs. Basolo’s wary eye.
When we reached the golf course, I could tell his massive energy was ready to burst out through his deep chestnut hide. I eased him into a trot, then his power exploded beneath me. We ran like the wind. I smiled at the glory of what I was doing. Together we galloped along the paths that lined the canal, where weeping willows flung their tender shoots in our faces. ‘So long’ they seemed to be saying.
So long to the watchful eyes of the adults. So long to the safer territories of the neighborhood.
So long to the sneering face of my big sister Sally.
“I’ve got Alibi,” I yelled.
That morning we rode farther than I’d ever gone before—all the way to a vaulted, rickety footbridge that ran up and over the canal. When we got to the top of the bridge, I stood tiptoes in the stirrups, listening to the current thundering below us.
“Well, here we are, Alibi!” And that magnificent steed nickered right back at me. It was as though we were one. I looked about at this new world of giant cottonwoods, brilliant wildflowers and a river wild as a mustang. I sat atop Alibi and atop the world. I breathed it all in. Alibi snorted once, like he was agreeing but when I looked down at him, I realized he was lathered and wet.
“You have to walk him, and dry him, and curry him and clean his hooves. Then you give him fresh hay and water. but you wouldn’t know about that, Nerdlick.”
I knew it was time. So I reined him home. Back through the golf course, back down the alley, ducking my head cautiously under the open door as we re-entered the stable.
“Good boy, Alibi.” I said unsaddling him.
He neighed in response, then snorted once. So very softly.
“There, there,” I patted his thick-muscled neck.
He didn’t respond. I strained to hear his soft whinnies and nickers, but they had dissolved into…
“What are you doing in here?”
Startled, I turned around. Oh God! It was Sally. “I…I…”
“I asked you what are you doing in here, moron?”
I watched her fists open and close at her sides.
“I told you…” she took a step towards me. “…never touch Alibi.” And with that she leapt into the garage.
My heart began a Buddy Rich solo as I looked around the garage for refuge.
For anything…anything to save me.
There was nothing.
But just then the fly darted past me making straight for Sally’s head. As she jerked from its path, I saw my chance. I bolted past Sally, shoving her hard as I went, tearing down that alley, racing past the honeysuckle and grapevines until I reached the safety of my olley-olley-income free telephone pole, holding onto it for dear life.
My head pounded, my lungs burned, my heart pounded like those hooves of glory I’d ridden on my journey to freedom. Slowly my breath evened out and I lifted my head as I rose past my lowly station into the hierarchy of my own self-worth.
And then I smiled.