Bewildering Stories

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Sidewalk Chunk

by M. Scott Harris

Every Friday night during football season, the lights from the high school field would shine on the tops of the pine trees in the old neighborhood and make them glow like sparklers in the dark. Even though everything was new back there, with new houses laid in on that ground, the remaining trees were as radiant as ever, an undiscriminating spectacle for anyone to witness on any given game night. Looking at them from the street, I remember submerging myself into all the old Fridays which flowed through me like a soft, cool ribbon, and trying to pinpoint the exact moment this place had ceased to feel like home.

Throughout the town, each of these Friday nights were seen as a fresh chance for victory and renewal.

So this Friday was my chance, then.

During the first weeks of football season, the weather is very warm and wet. From the street I could look through the fence at the shirt-sleeved coaches and spectators, their umbrellas folded carefully at their sides. None of them seemed particularly concerned about the reports. But just because it hadn’t technically been a hurricane for a couple of days didn’t mean it wasn’t still potent, especially with this cold front coming in from the other direction to meet it head on. It was going to be a big one, even for the grizzled types. But more so, infinitely more so, for the newbies.

Spectators young and old shuffled single file between the bleacher rows and pooled around the concession stand. That popcorn-and-hot-dog smell still went for blocks. The people all looked like oysters out of their shells, comfortably vulnerable in a secondary world.

I watched them for a moment or two before I went on my way. There was something I had to go get. The night air was thickening, almost visible. In the field lights I could see flying insects being eaten by bats flickering between the shadows.

After passing the field, I left the road about fifty yards down and cut between two of the brick school buildings and back around behind the ancient gymnasium, a massive, joyless square of cream-colored brick with rectangular windows about 25 feet up, the kind that had to be cranked open by hand. Years ago someone had soaped them over with blue paint.

Behind the gymnasium was a small deserted parking lot, full of potholes and loose gravel. Some months ago the town council had decreed the lot unfit to use because of bad asphalt and uneven sidewalks, and decided the whole thing should be ripped apart and repaved. During the construction, all the cars were parked along the access road on the far side of the field. The sounds from the field were more distant here and the cricket sounds were strong under the extinguished lampposts.

The strip of sidewalk that paralleled the gym had been the first thing to go. The old cement was broken up and discarded in a long, brown dumpster at the corner of the building. I made for that dumpster and peered into it through a small sliding door on the side. I stuck my arm in and started feeling around. Before long I had a piece of concrete a little bigger than my fist. I turned the sidewalk fragment over in my hand, using my thumb to brush away the dust and grit. The fragment was well intact, I decided, and would serve almost perfectly.

I was forecasting the rain to start in half an hour, so I had to get back. I love the rain, especially that kind of rain. It has this enveloping quality, makes it easy to sleep. It drives the people inside. Not that I mind people, if they behave properly, of course.

Holding the chunk of concrete in my hand, I picked up my pace and jogged back around the gym, between the buildings, and back to the road. Something had just happened in the game; the people in the stands were cheering. A touchdown, perhaps. Maybe nothing.

I paused again behind the fence, inside a stand of late summer weeds that tickled my arms and face. I remembered when a friend or two from the old neighborhood used to come to the field with me on the morning after a game to look for coins and other things under the bleachers. We had once found a ring and, not knowing what else to do, took it to the pawn shop. We got seven dollars for it. It had seemed more expensive than that, but for us it was still a huge sum.

I left that memory in the weeds, reluctantly, and turned away from the field. I headed up into the neighborhood, my old neighborhood, toward the large new metal houses, still carrying the sidewalk chunk in my hand.

The houses began to appear along each side of the street like bright Easter-time characters who had lost their way in a forest. In the front yards, delicate green sprouts of new, weak-rooted baby grass were just visible through the straw. I walked quietly so as not to disturb the hunting beagles that still lived in a fenced-in area at the first house, the old Holloway place, the only one on the street they hadn’t torn down. I swatted obliquely at the mosquitoes buzzing around my face, knowing it was useless to fight them; with the neighborhood so close to all that standing water, they bred by the billions.

There was a sharp bend in the neighborhood street about halfway through it. This was where the lights from the field shone most strongly on the pines. I left the street there and went quietly between the two identical houses at the middle of the curve and through their backyards until I reached a large stream gully, about five feet deep, at the edge of their property. The neighborhoods needed these gullies to keep from flooding. This particular one in my old neighborhood was deeper than average, because the land was even closer to water than the rest of the town. The grass stood tall, and the mosquitoes swarmed, feather-light as they bit into my skin. On the other side of the gully, the crickets and frogs were loud in the still-heavy thickets and woods.

I waved the grass aside and got down on my knees. The bank was slick but hard. When I looked into the ditch, I saw thick mud at the bottom of it and, of course, my dam. The mud was thicker on one side of the dam than the other.

It was wider at the bottom where I had laid in large chunks of stone and wood, filed them down and mortared them up with mud and locked them together. There was one gap left at the top of the dam, like a spillway. I stretched onto my stomach at the edge of the ditch, and I carefully reached out and fit the piece of broken sidewalk into the gap. Then I scooped some of the mud from the gully bed and patched up the cracks around the stone. The last stone. Then I wedged in small sticks and grass to form a tight seal between the rocks, and added more mud.

Then I stood back up and looked at the dam. It was perfect. I remember absently squishing mud between my fingers and thinking that this would create the first water into which I would cast my net. The other gully dams and drain clogs I had created would follow suit, and with a rain like the one I was anticipating, this ditch would flood and then everything else would, too. The new houses hadn’t been built too far away, much closer to the ditch and the water than the old ones. The new-house-building guys were clearly from out of town, and they had made their major mistake.

Just then, like magic, I felt a drop of rain on my face. It was beginning almost ten full minutes ahead of schedule.

I sat down on the bank of the gully and waited. The rain grew steadily stronger, and within five minutes I was soaked. The mud in the gully softened. Eventually the water overcame it and began to rise. The rain kept falling harder and harder. I looked up into the sky and watched it come.

I didn’t see the lightning, but I heard thunder, from far off, in the swamps. I heard a dog bark in alarm. I looked around and spotted the doghouse a few houses over, a few feet from the gully.

Except for the dog, the neighborhood was vacant and black. Everyone was still down at the field, doing their best to ignore the rain. Every Friday was a new chance, a new game, and this chance, this game, belonged to me. Through the sheen of the hardening storm, the houses seemed to fade and flicker, like ghosts no longer anchored to the earth.

Copyright © 2005 by M. Scott Harris

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