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.

Crustless Memories

As head goon, my duty was to start the rock rocket competition. “You ready?” I ask.

My friend nods and winds up my sister’s tennis racket.

I slow pitch the rock. He whips the racket around.

TWANG. The inorganic missile sails over the Karlson’s garage. We waited for a reaction, but none came. No surprise; winning on the first try seldom happened.

I pitched another rock; my friend sent that sailing too. 

“Goddamit,” cries old man Linkletter from behind the garage. “I’m gonna tan your hides.” Stomping sounds approach the gate in the fence adjoining the garage.

My friend grins. Just two rocks and a win. The gate rattles, so he shoots me a look. “You think the old man means it?” he asks.

“Probably.” But being naturally rotten meant always being prepared for the consequences. What we need is a sacrifice. “Dan Karlson is hitting rocks,” I yell.

“Just wait till I talk to his father,” comes a snarling reply.

We laugh. Dan was going to get it now. Too bad he isn’t with us. “Let’s go to my house.”

Ben nods, and we sprint two grassy lawns away to my house. We hide in the bushes next to the two-story thirty-year-old former barn, now masquerading as a residence.

While waiting for the smoke to clear, my stomach begins to grumble, loud enough for Ben to hear it. “Hey,” he says, “I’m kinda hungry too. Can we get something to eat?”

I considered the idea. Unfortunately, my pit viper sister was home, which meant, amongst other things, a high possibility of being fed rat poison. All for the crime of being younger and stealing attention from Mom and Dad. Still, I was hungry, and clearly, so was Ben.

Screw it. “Yeah, let’s get something to eat.”

He sprints to the backdoor of my house and reaches it first. But even though my lazy legs don’t get me there fast enough, I fall back on the one advantage I have.

“Oooof,” Ben squeals as I slam into him, plastering his bony carcass to the screen door. “Yur keeling me,” he moans, his face mashed into the glass insert.

Being fast is one thing; being bigger than most kids your age is something else. Still, I shouldn’t be too much of a jerk. I back off, and he peels himself off the door. “C’mon, I’ll let you pick something out of the freezer.”

“Cool. You have ice cream sandwiches?”

I nod. Only two left. One for me and one for Ben. Which, of course, means … none for my malignant tumor of a sister. YES!

The door yanks open. A pair of feral eyes glare at me from under a mop of pony-tailed fury. A smirking grin mocks me, as do the bits of ice cream sandwich in her teeth. “What took you so long?” she asks rhetorically.

Crap, sis struck first. Now Ben is going to get the last ice cream sandwich. Still, I wonder. “What’s for lunch?” I ask.

She smirks. “Lunch? What makes you think there is lunch?”

DUH. “Because it is lunchtime, and I’m hungry.”

“Well, you’re out of luck. There’s nothing made.”

I try not to smile. Hallelujah, rat poison is off the menu. Instead, I grouse, “Fine, I’ll make something myself.” But as I start to push past her, she spots Ben behind me. “Why is he here?”

Ben slides down behind me, hoping my demon sibling devours me before getting to him.

“I invited him,” I reply.

Sis rolls her eyes. “Whatever. You feed him ’cause I won’t.” She turns away and saunters out of the kitchen.

I lean towards Ben. “Good news, there’s now less of a chance of explosive diarrhea. C’mon, I’ll make you a sandwich.”

Now that Tyrannus Sisterous Rex has slithered away, Ben motors into the breakfast nook. “Just remember to cut my crusts off.”

Sweet Jesus, what is with him and bread crusts? Okay, whatever. But if he asks me to wipe his butt, forget it. “What do you want to drink?”


Really? The yahoo knows we don’t drink that stuff. “Water or juice.”

Ben frowns. The prospect of not drinking caffeinated sugar is clearly unappealing. “What kind of juice?”

I open the fridge. Two pitchers sat on the top shelf, one orange, the other red. Usually, that would mean we had apple AND orange juice, but thanks to Sister Sunshine, my guard is up. I grab the handles and gently lift them. Crap. Both empty. They were both half-full this morning. Sis must have dumped them out after I went outside to play.

“Never mind, we’re having water.” Ignoring the whining, I grab the jelly jar and turn to the counter. On the end sits the peanut butter. Where’s the bread? I quickly spot a nearly empty wrapper.

Snatching it up, I look inside. Four slices left. Yeah!

All of which have bite marks around the edges. By their size and shape, clearly made by my sister’s fangs. Boo!

I glance at Ben. He either soiled himself or is still resenting having to drink water.

Sis is looking in from the doorway. Great. Sister one, me nothing. Still, I won’t surrender. So, I grab a knife. Guess we’ll both be eating crustless sandwiches.