I wheeled the bike from the garage and took a deep breath. It was the start of the lull week that happened every summer. The week when every kid I knew was off at camp and I was on my own. Every year the neighborhood children would be shipped off to some 7 day secluded spot chosen by their parents. Whenever asked if they were excited to go they would respond with things like “my mom makes me” or “I have to go”. A week later they would all return with stories of 3-legged races and canoe rides and group showers. They all seemed to have had a good time and they always had some kind of commemorative t-shirt, so that was nice.
I could have gone to camp I suppose. Never really thought about it, never had a desire to. My mother didn’t make me so I didn’t have to go. I never felt as if I missed anything. When they returned the other kids would ask, “What did you do while we were gone?”
“Nothing,” I would say.
Today there was nothing to do and I intended to do it all day long.
I looked the bike over as if I were performing a pre-flight check. She was a Huffy with a green banana seat and green hand grips and a green cushion on the crossbar. My favorite color was green.
I leapt on the bike with a running start and turned out of the driveway fast and sharp, I had to put my foot down not to fall. At the end of the block I turned left and cruised in a meandering sway down several blocks to where the road curved, where the footbridge crossed the creek. I thought for a moment I would cross the bridge; maybe throw rocks in the water. Instead I chose to turn right toward the WaWa on the busy street.
I could never remember the names of streets. I just thought of them as “the busy one” or “the curvy one” or “the one by the school”. This was never a problem unless I had to give directions. I avoided giving directions.
I was peddling fast and it made the five dollars in quarters in my pockets jingle. The quarters would be heavy in just one pocket so I made sure to distribute the weight by splitting the money evenly into both front pockets. I was not worried about the return trip because I did not intend to have the weight by the end of the day.
I skidded to a stop in the WaWa parking lot and chained my bike to a newspaper box near the front entrance. When I entered the store the old man who owed the place was behind the front counter near the cash register and the cigarette packs. He squinted and sneered at me till I showed him a handful of quarters. He nodded reluctantly then pretended to clean something.
Straight back were the coolers with the sodas and the milks and the microwavable foods and the slushy machine. I turned right along the row of magazines toward my favorite spot; the comic book rack and the Asteroids machine.
The comic book rack was circular and spun. Issues were stacked at random in basket-like shelves 6 high and 8 around. I started, as I always did, at the top of one row and methodically made my way down then back up again. Most issues I had already read but that did not matter. I would look over each one lovingly savoring every word and line and color. Fantastic people doing wonderful things. No one died or grew old, they just moved from one adventure to the next. I was only a quarter of the way through the rack when I was told in a loud voice that this was not a lending library.
“IknowIknowIknow,” I said. WaWa guy usually let me get much further before cutting me short. I guessed it was a slow day and there weren’t many kids to yell at other than me. I moved to the Asteroids machine.
I placed two dollars in quarters on the glass indicating my intention to play for a while. I checked the standings before I started to play. My initials, PMC, had dropped to second place. Sorry Robtastic, I thought, but your time of triumph will soon be at an end. I dropped a coin and began to play.
Behind a curved glass screen on a not-quite-black background jagged geometric shapes that generally approximated rocks slowly moved toward a triangle in the center. I control the triangle. Twisting it and turning it and spinning. I fired pulsating dots toward the geometric shapes breaking them into smaller geometric shapes, then smaller ones, then smaller still. My hands moved along buttons at the base of the machine, fingers tapping and sliding and pounding; faster and faster till eventually my triangle is hit. And I lose a life. Would you like to continue? the machine asked me in white text on the not-quite-black background. Yes. And I dropped another quarter. And another. And another. Another.
On the curved glass I can see a reflection of myself as I play. A ghost-like image, insubstantial and see through. My ghost-self floats superimposed on top of the game. I can see as I play my home haircut and straight bangs and my over-sized, plastic glasses. And my round face is a shimmering god-like ghost who controls everything. And then I die. Would you like to continue? Yes.
I continue till my initials are at the top and I am for the moment satisfied. With a royal swoop of my hand I turn and grab a comic from the rack without previewing it and take it to the counter with a handful of Bazooka bubble gum snatched from a plastic tub near the register. The WaWa guy sighs when I pay in quarters. He points to the gum, “That’ll rot your teeth,” he says. I shrug and there is what I assume is a smile on his face. “Come again,” he says.
I rolled the comic into a tube and secured it in my back pocket then rode off with a running start. I followed the busy road past the lumber yard and the hospital, the hospital I was born in, to the graveyard.
I love the graveyard but I don’t know why.
I feel safe there; among the trees and the stones and the perennial gardens. I think it’s pretty. I peddle through the Iron Gate and ride along the curved roads past the manicured lawns and the heavy, stone mausoleums and the cut flowers laid down in bunches. It smells like cut grass and lilies and roses and dirt and rotting leaves. It smells alive.
I know I should be afraid of graveyards, I’ve seen enough TV to know that. But the graveyard does not scare me, at least during the day. I rode to my favorite place near the east entrance by the giant oak. The place where the stones are elaborate and fancy and ancient.
One gravestone looks like a log covered in vines. Beneath it is a man who died in 1902 (a loving husband and father). There is another shaped like a half moon with a carved angel on top, wings spread. It marks the place where a girl, only 18 years old when she died in 1923 lay (may the angels keep her). There is a jagged, rough cut rectangle inlaid with an oval picture of a stern and stiff looking woman who died in 1936 (her laughter will be head in Heaven). There is a beloved wife under a Celtic cross (her beauty is forever). And there is an 11 year old boy who died in 1910 (he was taken too soon). His birthday is the same as mine.
I walked between the stones in the thick grass and ran my hands over the polished marble. With my fingers I traced the chiseled letters and numbers that spell out the names and the dates. The dead are beneath me. They were people once, now just dry bones in lacquered boxes with silk insides to keep them comfortable.
I wonder what my stone will say. Will I have been a loving son? A beloved father or husband? Will I have been taken too soon? Will I one day rest my head on a silk pillow in a polished box deep under the earth and the grass and the trees? Will a boy one day stand above me and wonder who was down below?
These thoughts pass quickly. They do not continue because I am young and death is distant. It is a long way off and I do not truly understand.
I sat down in the shade of that giant oak and read my comic book on a sunny day. I read of adventure and fantastic people in wondrous places in four colors, bright and beautiful. There was nothing to do on a summer day and I did it with all my heart. And all around me the gravestones sheltered me and reflected the sun.
originally posted May 21, 2014