Long before the days of 24-hour cartoons and 24-hour porn, children actually played outdoors, porn-less. During daylight hours, one’s best bet was The Woods. Every neighborhood had it. You could do anything in The Woods. Anything—clothed or naked. Build a fort from lumber you stole from local construction sites. Cruise the seedy part of the galaxy in your speeder, looking for a score—from the crook of a tree! Your speeder would rumble, barely containing its rage, as you passed the prostitutes and the purse snatchers.
And if nature called, maple leaves presented themselves in profusion. That’s a nettle, doofus. The glory of The Woods! I drove myself through my childhood neighborhood the other day, and The Woods were gone. Houses instead. House after house, wedged in there like prayers in the Wailing Wall. Where do kids play?
Oh, yeah. They’re indoors playing video games or standing with a group of their friends in a mall, talking about the porn the saw that morning. Some woods would fix all that. That would Make America Great Again. Fix us right up.
However . . . one didn’t go into The Woods at night. Are you crazy? At nightfall, ownership of The Woods ceded to whatever creatures and ghouls rose from the crevices and swampy places. What exactly were they? No one was sure because no one had ever ventured in to find out. Duh. We were children, but we weren’t stupid. You go look if you’re so interested!
So at night, we gathered—all us kids in the neighborhood—in the Barkers’ backyard for some game, most often Kick the Can.
Kick the Can requires naught but your wits and the ability to hold your pee while you hide behind shrubbery—and a can. You need a can, usually a Folger’s Coffee can. It’s almost empty. Just dump it in the trash. Your mom won’t notice! We’d place the can centrally, in the glow of the lights from the Barkers’ house on the Barkers’ lawn. (The lights from the house generated a penumbra by which we determined what was in and out of bounds. Not that you couldn’t cheat. At night, you were as immaterial as an apparition. Like a superpower. Just don’t go into The Woods! Superpowers won’t do you any good then.)
Kick the Can is a combination of hide-and-go-seek, tag, and capture the flag. You break into two teams. One team is “it.” They close their eyes and count to 10 while the other team scatters like ants. The “it” team goes out and tries to capture the members of the other team. If the “it” person gets to the can before the other kid and puts a foot on the top of the can and says “One, two, three on Jimmy,” or whomever, that person is “caught.” One by one, they put these unfortunate saps into “jail,” a holding area to the side of the Folger’s can—in this case, the Barkers’ patio with their rusted barbecue and a length of garden hose.
It then becomes the bounden duty of the remaining members of the other team to free their captured comrades by making a mad sprint to the can and kicking it over. However, if a member of the “it” team gets to the can first, puts a foot on the can, and cries out “One, two, three on John,” or whomever, that person, John or whomever, is placed in the jail.
But were you able to reach the can first—oh, the glory, the effusion of victory, the bliss! Make sure you don’t let out any of that piss! You were the Conqueror, the Liberator. Your freed teammates would bolt for the dark outer reaches of the Barkers’ property, singing praises to your glorious name. We’d have used the word orgasm if only we’d known it. But then if we’d known what an orgasm was, we probably wouldn’t be playing Kick the Can in the dark.
Inside, our parents were oblivious, watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or something, safe and warm, true—but nevertheless unfulfilled, settling for security over adventure. Suitable for all audiences. Theirs would not be the orgasm of victory at the kicking of the can. There—I said it! All they had were real orgasms. Sure, they’d learn valuable facts about the Serengeti from watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, but what good is that going to do you when you’re crouching in the Barkers’ bushes, trying not to pee your pants by skwooshing your doodle in your shivering fist, and you see the Keeper of the Can stray too far from the can itself? Can you make it—or will he get there first and “One, two, three” your sorry ass? Oh, the delicious indecision! Wiping your nose with the back of your free hand and marshaling your strength, you make your decision. You’d do it! You’d try to save your captured brethren and, I guess, sisteren, if I must, and be crowned King of the entire Universe. All of it, except you can keep the black holes.
Here you go!
The Keeper of the Can would turn at the sound of the rustling bushes and bolt for the can to call you out before you kissed the cheek of God Himself.
“C’mon, John!” all the kids in jail would shout.
Sometimes you’d win. Your team would cheer, exploding from jail like Christmas confetti. God in his antechamber would pull his bifocals down his nose and smile a wistful smile as He watched the tomfoolery on earth far below.
Sometimes you’d lose. Life’s like that. You’d join your teammates in jail. If you didn’t run like a girl, we wouldn’t be here right now! You’d shrug. One tended, at such times, to look on the bright side. You could go into the Barkers’ house and pee. On the other side of the sliding glass door, Mr. and Mrs. Barker were sitting at opposite ends of the family room. Mr. Barker’d be engrossed in his show. He would have been enjoying a cup of coffee but, unexpectedly, they were all out. Mrs. Barker would be knitting or something.
“You kids having fun out there?” she’d ask without looking up. I could have been an ax murderer.
“Yes, ma’am,” you’d say. “Loads. I almost got everyone out!”
“That’s good,” she’d say. I was invisible.
After I peed, I went out the front door, which was sort of cheating, but only if you got caught.
I saw Lance crouching behind the tree in the appendage of the garden that swooped into the middle of the front yard like an encroaching paisley-shaped amoeba. Since his back was turned to The Woods, he was always aware that something could jump him. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about with the prospect of being caught in the game.
“Hey, man!” I whispered.
He started. “Shhh!” he said, embarrassed, putting his finger to his lips and hunching his shoulders to emphasize the point. Maybe I’d confuse embarrassment for anger, something manly.
“Anybody caught yet?” I asked.
“Brad is sneaking around to look. He’ll whistle when he sees something.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “A lot of prisoners, I guess.”
“Won’t they hear him whistle and catch him?” I asked.
“He’ll whistle like a bird, stupid!”
“There’s birds at night!”
“Oh, yeah?” I said. “Name one.”
“Bats!” he said.
“Bats aren’t birds!”
“Owls!” he shot out, as if it was what he meant to say in in the first place. “Owls.”
“Owls don’t whistle,” I pointed out. “They hoot. And bats don’t whistle either.”
“Quiet!” he said with an expectant look, holding his fingers to his ear. “That’s him!”
“What are we supposed to do when he whistles?”
Lance sat silent for a few moments, scanning the garden floor as if the answer might be sprouting there. “We didn’t get that far.”
I looked in the direction I assumed Brad had gone. “So what do we do?” I asked.
“Let’s go around the other way,” he eventually said. Better safe than sorry.
We turned the farthest corner of the house and confronted one of the “it” team members who was just going through the fence door to conduct reconnaissance.
“Ha!” he’d shout and turn and bolt for the can. He had a good 20 feet on us. We were doomed. We took our spot on the patio.
Fortunately, now I had to poop.
Eventually, Mrs. Barker would stick her head out the sliding glass door and say, “Time to come in, kids!”
“Just five more minutes!” one or all of the Barker children would plead.
“Five minutes,” Mrs. Barker would agree with an indulgent scowl.
Ned, the oldest neighborhood boy, said, “OK, the last person I touch wins.” We all shrieked as he put his hand over his eyes and counted out loud to 10.
It was every kid for himself/herself. If you could, you’d push a friend in front of Ned to prevent yourself from being touched. Law of the Jungle. You had no friends. These people? They’re important to the extent they’re useful. Pawns. Decoys. Chum. I think this is how human shields were invented, from Kick the Can—this very night, for all I know. We should have taken minutes. A snapshot with us standing around some black felt sign with white push-in letters signifying the date and the moment. Barkers’ Backyard. 1967. Of course, one of us would have to surreptitiously give the finger to the camera. Probably me.
Ned went around picking off kids as if he were one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The skeleton one. And I looked and, behold, a pale horse and the rider’s name is death. Or maybe they’re all skeletons. The approaching rattle of the bones will be the warning that you should repent. As they crest the hill, the wind would whistle through their rib cages.
I was crouched with a group of us. Each of us was trying to position another person between oneself and Ned’s most likely direction of approach. But he might come from behind, you keep thinking. So you turn yourself sideways so that one eye can look one way and the other eye looks the other way. You don’t want to turn your back to The Woods. Then you find that’s impossible. What was I thinking? It’s the stress of combat.
“Ha!” Ned shouted as he burst through some bushes I was facing, touching as many kids as he could.
Not me! I jumped backward, tripping over someone’s feet and landing on my ass, and then spinning over and running for my life. For all I knew, Ned was on my tail. If that was the case, I was done for, as he was two years my senior and didn’t run like a girl.
But, stitch in my side, I made it to the backyard where the coffee can was. I stood in the middle of the backyard, each back corner of the house equidistant from me.
My breathing began to ease. Eventually everyone ambled around the southern corner, laughing and talking, and scratching themselves in places they shouldn’t. But it was OK because it was dark and no one could see.
“You’re the winner!” Lance called.
“Cool!” I said, then thought for a minute. “What do I win?”
“You have to go through the Spanking Machine!”
Ah, yes, the Spanking Machine, first used in the Spanish Inquisition, I think. To create the Spanking Machine, the kids would line up single file with their legs spread, each person facing the back of the person in front of them. Then the spankee would crawl on hands and knees through the kids’ legs as quickly as possible. The spankers would . . . spank.
I got on my hands and knees at the front of the line, my face about 12 inches from Lance’s doodle, packaged up there like a rescued sparrow in a hand towel. The rest of the kids were hooting and taunting. If it was today, they’d be checking their smartphones. Thanks to no Woods. The point was to go through the Spanking Machine as quickly as possible. As you’d skooch underneath everybody, they’d each spank you on the butt as hard as they could. One of the bigger kids was likely to clamp you in his legs and give an extra-hard whooping.
So I went through as fast as the palms of my hands and my bony knees could take me. And, yes, Ned clamped down on me and did an extended drum riff from the drum solo on my ass. The one they play on FM radio. “Ha!” he said.
At this, Mrs. Barker stuck her head out of the sliding glass door and said, “I really mean it this time, kids!”
We all went to our own houses, calling out “See you tomorrow” over our shoulders. Laura skipped ahead of me. By the time I got to the fence, she was already at the front door, chiming “We’re home!” and then slamming the door. I stepped on the bottom railing and threw my other leg over the top of the fence. From there, I stood on the bottom railing and took in the night. I could hear doors open and close around our immediate neighborhood. Then . . . nothing. The Barkers shut off their outdoor light and I was alone in the dark. From The Woods, I heard a creature of ill will purring with malice, and I bolted for the door.
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