Neighborhood Memories

Wind rushing past, tugging at clothes and hair, sends the pulse racing until a collision with the dark loam reins in the momentary thrill. When you’re ten, the consequences are easy to ignore: the grass stains, a scratch, a bruise. Jump to your feet, race back to the porch, climb the railing, and leap. A brief moment of freefall, a slap from the laws of physics, roll-over, and repeat.

If you’re lucky, friends will cheer you on. If not, they land on you, sending stars across your field of vision, leaving you to sniff back tears, search your arms for contusions, and nose for blood. Hurt? Nah, shake it off. That baby tooth needed to come out anyway.

Weekends meant crawling through the neighborhood bushes, behind garages, and over gravel driveways until an adult began baying your name. As long as your middle name didn’t drift on the breeze, it was safe to ignore the summons.

Unless the prospect of being fed was involved, then all bets were off. Even chucking rocks over the garage into the Linkletter’s yard could not compete with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — manna from the gods.

A Short History of Illinois – aka A Grassy Purgatory, or Crunchy Prairie Dog Surprise

I lived in Illinois for about 15 years. And by Illinois, I mean the part of the state that doesn’t include the canker sore of Chicago, where only criminals and Democrats live. Forgive me for the last comment – I was being redundant. No, I lived in downstate Illinois, where Republicans live, and the air often smells of hog shit. No connection there.

Before I begin, let me emphasize that the state’s name is “Ill-in-n-oy,” not “Ill-in-oy-Z.” A sure indicator that you’ve not lived in the Midwest is someone who sticks a ‘Z’ sound on the end of the word. Illinois was named by the irksome French, who have no problem rolling in stinky cheese and perfume but are too haughty to pronounce the letter ‘s.’

Anyway, Illinois was considered by the first settlers to be a vast treeless wasteland where only prairie dogs and Native Americans were foolish enough to live. At first, only fur-obsessed Frenchmen ventured into the tall grasses. Still, they either moved on or were eaten by the Native Americans (after all, a steady diet of prairie dog is monotonous). Later English settlers came, and those that weren’t devoured by the Native Americans ate them instead and all the prairie dogs. Then an enterprising soul figured out how to pry open the tough grassland (probably looking for more prairie dogs) and discovered the rich black soil underneath. Like flies on feces, settlers flocked to Illinois to grow food and procreate dozens of laborers – i.e., children. Soon missionaries arrived to scold and cast aspersions on anyone enjoying themselves. Then railroads were built to encourage westward migration since no one in their right mind would want to live in the middle of grasslands with missionaries. (After all, they don’t toast up as well as prairie dogs.) That is the short history of Illinois.

The Birthday

Eight-year-old Paul stared out the car window as the glowing lights of Joe’s Pizza flashed against the gloom of a cold December gray sky. He wiped the frost off the window and looked around the parking lot. “Where’s Dad?”

“Spending time with his girlfriend,” Mom groused, then shut off the 1972 Dodge Dart and pulled the door open. After a quick glance in the rearview mirror to check her thinning auburn hair and red lipstick, she said, “Let’s go.”

Swinging the heavy door open, Paul stepped out onto the gravel. It crunched merrily at his feet. Pulling his coat tighter to fend off the chill, he followed her to the big red doors at the entrance to the Pizza parlor.

Mom stood at the door but continued to glance around the lot. “He promised he wouldn’t be late,” she said, blowing on her hands. Her face looked tired, with dark circles under her eyes, but a small, wrapped birthday present was tucked under her arms.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be here,” Paul offered.

“Yeah, like he keeps all his promises,” Mom snapped back.

The last comment stung, but Paul struggled past it. “Let’s get a table.”

Mom nodded, then pushed open the door, and they stepped inside. The warm glow of the interior lighting invited him in, as did the smell of tomato sauce and fresh bread baking in the oven.

A waitress appeared, a teen girl with braces, grabbed a couple of menus, and hustled them toward a booth tucked away in a corner near large windows on two sides.

Mom scooted into the booth, but when Paul slid opposite her, she quickly waved him over to sit by her. The waitress pushed the menus in front of them.

“Let me know when you’re ready to order.”

Paul was still struggling to get his coat off, but before he had a chance to grab a menu, Mom snatched it away and pushed it back at the waitress.

“Two slices of cheese pizza and water to drink. Nothing else.”

A frown briefly sailed across the young woman’s face before she snapped up menus and left.

Paul had been so excited to finally have his favorite dish. He had waited all day, but his heart sank as he watched the waitress disappear. Not even for his birthday could he get what he wanted. “I was hoping we could get a whole pizza with extra pepperoni.”

“I’m not made of money,” she said, then glanced at her watch. “Where is he?”

The waitress reappeared with drinks.

Dad appeared behind her. “Hey, sport,” he said, flashing a quick smile. “Sorry, I’m late.” He ran a hand through his short military-grade hair to sweep the snowflakes out of it.

Paul’s heart soared. It had been almost two weeks since their last court-ordered custody visit. “Hey, Dad.” He turned to Mom. “See, I told you he’d be here.”

Mom pursed her lips. “Hello, Ray.”

Dad’s eyes flashed toward Mom, and he quickly dipped his chin. Wasting no time, he slid into a seat opposite them.

“So, what’s on the menu?”

“We already ordered,” Mom said.

“Oh, okay.”

The waitress walked up with two glasses of water and placed them in front of Paul and Mom. She turned to Ray. “Can I get you something?”

“Yes, I’ll have what they’re having,” Dad said, nodding toward them.

“Okay, a slice of cheese pizza and water coming up.”

“Sounds good.”

As soon as the waitress turned away, Dad continued. “So, how’s it feel to be seven?”

“He’s eight,” Mom interjected. Dad shot her an annoyed glance.

“Right, eight then,” he corrected.

“Great, I was hoping for pepperoni pizza, though.”

“Really, that’s my favorite too. We’ll change it once the waitress returns.”

“No,” Mom said firmly.

Dad looked at her. “Why not?”

“That’s a waste of money and food.”

“Not a problem, I’ll cover it.”

“No.”

Dad threw his hands up. “Okay, whatever you say. I didn’t come here for a fight. It’s just a few cents.”

“Speaking of which, you’re late with the alimony again.”

“Yeah, well, sales haven’t been all that great. I’ve been waiting until my commission came in. It did yesterday.”

“I fail to see where that is my problem.”

With narrowed eyes and pursed lips, he pulled out his checkbook and grabbed a pen from his pocket. He filled out the check in a few short scribbles, then tore it out and pushed it over. “There, are you happy?”

Mom pulled in the check and stared at it, her face freezing. “So, she’s on your checks now?”

“Yes, we have a joint checking account. So what?”

She waved the check. “How do I know this won’t bounce?”

“Ellen, really?” Dad said, his face tight. “Can we talk about this some other time?”

Mom tucked the check away into her purse.

The waitress walked up with the pizza slices and deposited one in front of each person. “Anything else I can get you?”

Paul waited for someone to say something. Like “hey, it’s my birthday” or “let’s have pepperoni pizza after all,” but instead, both Mom and Dad sat in stony silence and shook their heads no. So, he picked up the pizza slice and tried to take a bite.

“Are you forgetting something?” Mom asked.

Paul looked at Dad, who already had a mouthful. He flashed a confused look at Mom. Then understanding flashed across his mind. Grace. He put the food down and closed his eyes. “Thank you, Lord, for this food, amen.” When he opened his eyes, Mom gave him an approving nod. He quickly grabbed the pizza slice and started to devour it.

Mom, however, didn’t touch hers. “Since I have your attention, for once. We need to talk about this next weekend.”

Dad flashed her a curious look while sipping on his water. “What about it?”

“My parents are coming to visit. They’ll want to see Paul.”

“But this weekend is our visitation weekend.”

“You’ll have to push it off until the following week.”

“Seriously, Ellen, you know that it is Christmas weekend. We’re going to be at Mary’s place in Minnesota. They aren’t expecting us to bring a kid.”

“That’s not really my problem, is it?”

“No, I guess not, but you’re sure going to make it mine.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

Dad’s face turned a few shades of pink before he gripped his fists and took a deep breath. “Fine. You win.” He turned to Paul. “Happy birthday,” then reached into his pocket and retrieved a wrapped present.

Paul reached for it, but Mom pulled it away. “After we’re done here.”

Dad fixed her with a look. “Oh, I think we’re done.” He tousled Paul’s hair. “Merry Christmas, sport.” Then he stood up.

“What are you doing?” Mom asked, her voice edging up an octave.

Ignoring her question, Dad looked at Paul. “See you in two weeks.”

Paul’s head spun. What was happening? He looked at Mom, whose pale face now looked pink.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she said, wagging a finger at Dad.

But it was already too late. Dad turned on his heel and walked out of the Pizza parlor.

“Damn him. Move,” Mom swore while pushing Paul out of the booth. He stumbled out of the way while Mom raced out the door.

The waitress appeared. “Ready for the check?”

Paul shrugged, and the waitress huffed and walked away. He stared at the present, then at the pizza. Grabbing the slice, he bit off a hunk. Mom soon reappeared, her face more flushed and breathing heavily.

“I can’t believe he cut and ran.” She looked silently at the table before shaking her head. “No, I can believe it.” She then noticed Paul eating his pizza. “Put that down. We haven’t said grace yet.”

“Yes, we did,” Paul muttered, dropping the pizza back on his plate.

Mom slid back into her seat. “Come sit.”

Paul sat too, but opposite her. As he watched, her brow knitted. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sitting.”

“Don’t get smart with me,” she said. “Come over here.”

He got up and slid in next to her.

“That’s better. Now say grace.”

“We already did that.”

Her eyes narrowed but then softened. “Oh, yes, we did.” She pushed the pizza in front of him. “Well, then, eat up.”

He started taking a few more bites, but Mom only picked at hers. A few minutes went by silently.

“You might have to spend next weekend with the Wilsons.”

Paul stopped mid-chew. “Next weekend is Christmas.”

“I know,” Mom said with some hesitation in her voice. “But I have to go to Cleveland.”

“Why can’t I come too?”

Indecision danced across Mom’s features before her face settled. “No, you’ll have to stay with the Wilsons, our friends from Church.”

“Your friends, you mean,” Paul muttered under his breath. He put the pizza down and turned to her. “Why are you going out of town?”

“I have an appointment.”

“For what?”

“Just something I have to do, and Cleveland is the only place I can do it.”

“I won’t get in the way, I promise. I’ll be good for Grandma and Grandpa.”

Mom placed her hand on his face. “No, not this time, sorry.”

Paul slumped back in his seat. “So when will you be back?”

“Probably in about a week, I hope.”

He stared at his hands. She’d done this three or four times in the last couple of months, and she looked a little thinner and more tired each time she returned.

“Let’s open the presents, okay?” Mom pushed her present in front of him.

He grabbed it and pulled off the wrapper. A dark box with clear writing was underneath: ‘Modeling Clay, Gray.’ It was probably from Mom’s personal stash of professional artist supplies. “Thank you, Mom.”

“You can make anything you want with that.”

Even as he hefted the stick of clay in his hands, Paul’s eyes had already drifted to Dad’s present. “Can I open the other gift?”

“Sure.”

He pitched the clay aside and grabbed Dad’s gift. Stripping off the wrapper, he saw it was a Revell plastic airplane model, a WWII, US P40 fighter plane. The model was beautiful, particularly with the shark’s teeth decals. But…

“What’s the matter?”

Paul pushed it onto the table. “I bought this from Ray’s Hobby shop last month with my allowance.”

Mom nodded. “Well, you have some clay.”

True. But then nature called. “Can I use the bathroom?”

“Sure.”

Paul trotted off to the restroom. When he came out, Mom was standing there waiting for him. “Let’s go.”

He followed her out of the restaurant and climbed into the car. After a few tries, she started the vehicle, and they began to pull out of the parking lot. Paul looked around the car. “Where are the gifts?”

“In my purse.”

Paul looked inside but could only see the clay. “Where’s the airplane?”

“I left that behind.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“You said you already had it.”

“Yeah, but that just means I’ll have two. It was Dad’s gift. We have to go back.”

Mom gripped the steering wheel tighter, “Oh, stop being a baby about it. You’ve got some clay.”

Paul looked out the window at the snow-covered ground, but it was hard to see because of the tears in his eyes. Somehow being eight didn’t feel all that great after all.