"The only time that seemed too short was the time we got to play."
And then there were my neighbors – sexy victims of the time. Toned and ten years younger than my parents, their names were Sandy and Billy – the closest you could get to Sandy and Danny. In my eyes, they were instant celebrities. Billy was dark like an Italian, and he vacuumed his carpet barefoot, with a cigarette dangling off his lip, a pair of tan bell-bottoms, and Donna Sommer's On The Radio spinning on the record player. Sandy had short strawberry blond hair, freckles and a Jazzercise sticker on her Oldsmobile. She wore tennis skirts. Gretchen was my best friend and their youngest daughter. She had freckles as well – with light brown hair and a little gymnast’s body. She typically wore pigtails, and her smile could win over the toughest cynic. She was the girl everyone wanted to be best friends with and I, as geography would have it, was her top choice. Kids gave her stickers for free just to sit next to her in class. Stationery wasn’t merely traded to get a seat near her, it was given to her as frankincense and mihr were given to the baby Jesus.
In our younger times, we were aligned as one big Madame Alexander doll-carrying, tan-legged, eight-year-old girl. We picked crab apples from the tree across the street from her house, in front of her polio-stricken Uncle Chuckie’s home. We’d put them in my red wagon and take turns sitting in it – though due to my one year advantage, I usually ended up wheeling Gretchen – until we reached my back yard. And then, we’d ascend the one rubbly step into my “playhouse” – a very large, ten-foot long chicken coop behind our house where we’d spill the goods. The playhouse was like a white wooden trailer. It had long, skinny windows that we intermittently attempted to “winterize,” which meant we put screens up on them. We planted daffodils to outline the playhouse, and they happily peeked up, encircling the entire structure in the spring, like God’s highlighter pen. The flowers lent our little home a happy vibe. It had doors on either end, and inside it was cool, dank and dusty. It was the perfect place to stage our make-believe “frontier” family, and also the best place in the world to run to when you wanted to scream the curse words from Grease at the top of your lungs. Shit and tit never sounded as good as they did in the playhouse, all by yourself, full throttle, eyes wide open, blistering out your deepest, darkest, baddest little self.
And after picking from the beloved crab apple tree, we’d eat the sour apples on the floor of our frontier home as if they were golden orbs from heaven, as if we were the last two women on the frontier and this food would save us from ultimate doom.
In the Jersey sunlight on a random Saturday in July right around 1985, we’d dust the chicken coop, and Gretchen would whine – “But, you can’t do thaaa-aaat” as I attempted to dust the shelves with my big old broom. Then, my not so great imitation, “Yes, I caaa-aaan.” And we were off, our imaginations teeming. We sort of lived in a Normal Rockwell painting. We climbed trees and roller-skated and took our baby dolls –- I named mine Elizabeth so she, of course, named hers Elizabeth – up the block and across Main Street to the Peddie School campus. Up the one big hill, and suddenly, we were miles and miles away from home... On the great wide open frontier. Us against the world. Our little town, in our minds, opened up its gates and in flooded the cruel wilderness of the frontier. We'd clutch our babies as we made our way up the hill that the prep school kids used to sled down in the winter. We'd sit under one of the large oak trees, and talk shop. We had a lot of cleaning to do before the winter, I'd suggest. Gretchen would chime in with our desperate need for food before the storms hit. And then, when we tired ourselves of the frontier’s demanding hard work, we’d turn our ever-buzzing minds to our own backyards and in this case, to the backyard of my neighbors, two doors down. After all, we could whisk up drama as quickly as a baker could turn flour and butter and sugar into a soup of yummy cake batter. We loved “betending” that within every house and yard on our block and the blocks surrounding us, drama lay waiting for us to uncover it. To expose its beastly underbelly. Bring justice. Stake out the bad guys and bring peace back to our land. The frontier, on our more restless days, was wherever our skinny bodies roamed.
One day, our roaming brought us across the lawn of my next-door neighbor’s, an older couple named The Sprouts, and into the backyard of Billy Ward. On his lawn, we spotted toys, toys, toys. Big, plastic, colorful water guns, a big wheel, a green machine, GI JOE figurines and most likely an Evil Kenival. And we had bad thoughts – thoughts that would bring us to a dark, dark place – mainly the “woods” behind the fence in my backyard. The “woods” consisted of maybe ten trees, which backed up onto the lot of some undisclosed business. But there were thorns back there and that was enough for us to believe this was a dangerous place – full of unknown things awaiting us.
And so with our newfound lust for ruin, we took to gathering up all the Wards’ toys. Billy had a younger brother named Brian and a little sister, Erin. They all had blond hair, fair skin and freckles plastered across their noses. Their father had died of a heart attack at a young age. I can still remember that late night siren – the reddest and loudest and meanest sound I’d ever heard. And that was that – he was taken away in the middle of the night. There was no longer a father. Their poor mother was left to smoking single-mom-cigarettes while hosing down the lawn. Gretchen and I sleuthed our way into their yard. Their bubbly red American car was missing, so our entrance was, unfortunately, simpler than we’d hoped for. One by one, we gathered up the toys. We took piles of them and dumped them over the fence into “the woods.” We got sweaty and tired and the mosquitoes bit at our summer backs, the gnats flew into our eyes, but we kept on. We were on a mission and the two of us were a dedicated team. I was Batman and Gretchen was my most trustworthy Robin. And we had something very important to accomplish here today. We collected and dumped these toys as if our efforts would win us neighborhood medals, as if we’d get some sort of business deal out of this whole thing. After all, we were eternally cooking up schemes to get neighborhood fame. One day, we made Best Neighbor Awards. The two of us discussed who were our favorite neighbors, who was the friendliest, maybe the ones who passed out the most thoughtful treats at Halloween. This one made her own yummy popcorn, this one made caramel apples, or maybe it was that one smiling face that let us know we were kids she liked. But I took some old brown and white polka dot fabric of my mother’s and some potpourri from a seldom used jar of it, and then we found – probably in my mother’s bottomless desk drawer full of “junk” - a white ribbon that we tied around the “neck” of the two pieces of brown polka dot fabric, which formed balls, due to the potpourri clumps inside of them. Each of our two best neighbors got these “awards.” They could hang them over their mirrors or in their cars, Gretchen and I would say. We’d spent a chunk of our Saturday making them, so off we went with that happy nervous feeling, next door to Mrs. Sprout – she of the very kind face. Plus, her driveway was the absolute greatest for practicing our roller skating turn-arounds. They had this inexplicable white splotch in their driveway that was the shape of a tear drop, and Gretchen and I would enclasp our hands and splay our feet out like ballerinas in first position, and we’d circle around and around this teardrop for hours, singing Sunday, Monday, Happy Days. Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days…” So, this alone was deserving of a best neighbor award. Then, up the street to neighbor number two – she of the caramel Halloween apple -- who smiled widely as we declared her win and passed over the brown polka dot potpourri balls with white ribbon to her. And ahhhh… we felt like very good kids.
But this, this toy throwing and stealing from Billy’s yard, well this was the exact opposite of that. We were righting a wrong here. Billy could be mean and gross; he peed in my backyard I’m pretty sure – right in our daffodils. I’m not sure how I ever knew he did that, but I’m pretty sure he did. Plus, he was a boy and a few years younger than us. For those very reasons alone, he was a veritable outlaw. Punishment was awaiting him, he must have known…
After our feat was accomplished, we swung open the screen door to my back porch and walked inside like small-town heroes. We sat back to back on the yellow, metal step stool next to my mom’s built-in kitchen desk and allowed our satisfaction to sink in. But while we sipped on our two glasses of iced water, what we’d just done seeped in and the further it did, the more it occurred to me that we could… go to hell for this! We could receive eternal damnation for what we’d done to Billy, his brother Brian, sister Erin and their innocent toys. And their mom, poor single mom, eternally hosing down her driveway, which now had no toys! I could feel my stomach sink. I had to tell Gretchen. She was younger and she had to know the truth – that we would pay for what we’d done.
Of course, the very moment I whispered the truth into her impressionable ear, we leapt off the stools and were instantly back in “the woods,” clearing out their toys and carrying them by armfuls back onto the Ward’s lawn haphazardly, just like we’d found them. Water pistols thrown in front of the hedge, a baseball bat on the driveway, GI Joe figurines on the hosed-down grass right next to their garage, toy cars flung around the middle of the yard next to the hose that slung itself in a snake curl at the top of the driveway. We worked furiously to get it right. To put them all back. To not get caught. This was, after all, the thrill we’d yearned for the first time around. We could get caught. We could be in the midst of dropping a bright green water gun while Billy’s mother pulled up in her car. The Sprouts could pull up in the driveway and ask what we were doing. Where were the Wards, they'd ask? No. We had to be stealthy. We were two detectives here, Batman and Robin on a mission to right our wrong. We worked as if boxes of Strawberry Shortcake stationery, scratch and sniff bubbly stickers, grape popsicles and two new pairs of pink rollerskates awaited us at the end.
Ahhhh... We eyed one another as we climbed up my back porch steps. We'd done good, and we knew it. A little scratched up and tired and dirtier than when we’d started, achy from all the up and down, but we knew God would be happy with us now. Surely we’d sleep better that night. Clear consciences, toys back in place, the Wards knowing no difference, and a happy God. Up we’d skip back to Gretchen’s house for a family dinner.
A few years later, when my mom fell sick, I thought about that day. If only my mom’s stomach could be replaced like the Wards' toys – put back together again without a scar. No hospital – or maybe she could be placed there in the hospital room, diagnosed with cancer like the toys were placed in “the woods.” Then God would say, “Oops. I could get in trouble for doing that. I have to put her back.” He’d be scared about hell, too. And without our even knowing, she’d be put back, haphazardly. Just like all of our lives, delightfully messy. No IV’s and chemo, just family dinners and carpools. The usual suburban fare. I welcomed that like I’d once welcomed Gretchen’s parents. The others. Charles Chips and dinner salads in little wooden bowls as we ate spaghetti and meatballs at the round wooden kitchen table. Sips of iced cranapple juice in glasses as we dressed up in Gretchen’s Aunt Jennifer's poofy white dresses. Then, we'd play roller-skating waitresses in her basement. I'd stepped into a fairy tale. Two movies stars and their beloved daughter. Plus me. The perfect family.