Volume 10, Issue 2: Pictura
The three boys scrabbled down the rocky bank, laughing and talking as they kicked rocks down to the bottom. The bigger rocks beat them there, but all the smaller ones came panting to a stop part way down. It was sometime in the summer, with none of the boys being very sure about exactly when it had begun, or when it would all end. All they could see indefinitely in either direction was a summery haze. School was still within living memory, but not within the boundaries of anyone's discussion.
The biggest and oldest of them suggested they run down to the railroad tracks. They had been down there the previous week and had scored then. A possum had been on one of the tracks, cut clean in two. It had clearly heard the train coming, and decided to fool the locomoting danger by playing dead. The spectacle had provided fodder for wild discussions for two days. "A lesson for all of us," said the middle boy.
"And what might that lesson be?" asked his younger brother. "Don't do that?"
The boys were still at the age when debates could be settled by wrestling to the point of exhaustion. This was not the rule of blind force or tyranny; it was cheerfully accepted by all the boys as a most reasonable judicatory. The most interesting thing about it was that almost never could either plaintiff or defendant be described as winning, and yet the universal opinion was that this was the way to establish justice. When the wrestling ended, the dispute was settled and all penalties paid.
"Nah. Mom said not to go down there today."
"Whatcha wanna do then?"
The boys sat at the base of the hill, chunking rocks at a telephone pole. "I dunno." They were bored, but not oppressively. If the boys had been attuned to atmospheric changes they could have smelled the trouble coming. The same ionic warning had been there the previous winter when the boys had tromped out some parallel pathways for their sleds down a steep hill. The snow was deep enough so that when a kid was lying down on a sled he couldn't see out of his trench at all. This was fine, but the boys then decided to make the trenches crisscross and then conduct races to the intersection. The result had been eighteen stitches distributed among the three boys. One of them still had a scar big enough to impress those girls still inclined to the pretense of admiration.
But now the afternoon began to languish. The youngest suddenly sat bolt upright. "Let's go down to Dover Road and play tires!" It was just the ticket and the boys scrambled to their feet. Fatigue was forgotten and they happily trotted down to the construction project at the corner of Dover and Monroe. At the corner of that lot a backhoe had left a good sized pile of earth, with an infinite supply of dirt clods. The boys had found the pile the day after it had come into existence, and had promptly developed the game of tires.
This was because the practice of throwing these excellent dirt clods at stationary objects had soon grown old. The target had to be moving. But passing dogs could not be counted on to pass by regularly and soon began to avoid the area altogether. Naturally the attention of the boys eventually turned to . . . Dover Road.
They did not have the hearts of terrorists or vandals. Their parents had instilled in them a deep respect for the property of others, although perhaps the instillation of some measure of wisdom was still lacking. After many discussions, the boys had consequently determined that it was lawful to throw a dirt clod at a car if one was aiming for the tires. Hitting a tire with a dirt clod couldn't hurt anything. They dutifully tested their hypothesis on a few parked cars up and down the street, and were soon secure in their moral position.
On previous occasions, however, the boys had been singularly unsuccessful. When the cars turned on to Dover from Monroe, a large lilac bush hid the approach. So when the cars came into view the boys barely had time to launch before the cars disappeared again behind the fence which surrounded the house to their left.
On this day, however, a number of factors came together to make for an exciting afternoon, and a very long evening indeed. The first factor was the hunting trip which the oldest had been on with his father the previous year. That, of course, was ancient history now, but suddenly a lesson from that time came back unbidden. His father had explained to him the esoteric concept (at the time) of leading the target. It all came flooding back.
"Look, guys!" he whispered, in the fiercest military fashion he could muster. "Be really quiet, and listen for the cars turning. We then count one one thousand, two one thousand, and then see when the car comes out. We can figure out when to throw before we see the car!"
The others looked at him as the Romans had looked at Scipio, the Greeks at Alexander. Wow. The mathematical problem had been clearly presented, and after half an hour of counting, measuring, calculating, the boys had it down.
Two one thousand from the sound of turning was the time to launch. If they aimed at the sidewalk, the dirt clods would break on the pavement, or if the auspices were good, shatter on a tire.
Calculations over, the time had come to conduct the mission. The one who had brought them the idea of leading the target was, of course, the general, and assumed the role with a manly humility. The boys were all lying down on the backside of the dirt clod pile, near the top of it. They each selected a clod which fit their hands, and which had exactly the right degree of breakableness. The dirt clod had to be firm enough to throw and soft enough to explode like a grenade on impact. The air grew quiet. The boys lay in the sun, sweating and hoping. A cloud passed over the sun, and its sudden shadow startled all of them. But that soon passed by, the sun returned, and still they waited. There had not been such a lull in traffic all afternoon.
And then they heard it. Gravel crunched beneath the tires of a car turning onto Dover. The boys looked at each other, wild fire burning in their eyes. In those eyes were generations of Viking raids, desperate battles in medieval fortresses, and frightened young men crowded into amphibious landing craft about to land on a deadly beach. Mars was upon them. One one thousand, two one thousand, throw!
Three dirt clods arced through the midsummer air. Just when they reached the peak of their trajectory, the sheriff's patrol car crawled into view. The boys all turned white simultaneously, and all their previous casuistry appeared before their panicked eyes in shreds and tatters. Wham! Wham! Boom! Two clods hit the driver's side door, right in the middle of the county seal, and the third hit the hood. They had selected their dirt clods well. Each exploded like a small bomb, filling the air with fine earth and dust. The next sound was the screech of brakes, followed immediately by six feet earnestly seeking the way home.
The sheriff was standing beside the car door, staring intently off in the distance. He could see three small heads about fifty yards away, trying to make themselves scarce. He could see where they were working , and so he pulled a pair of binoculars from the car and fixed his gaze on a likely alley. But after about five minutes, no recognition came into his face. He then tossed the binoculars on the seat, and drove off.
The boys sat in the back of their general's garage, and looked at one another in ashen silence. Finally, the youngest spoke. "What do we do?"
The oldest looked outside. "We need to go to your house for dinner. Mom said I was eating with you guys tonight."
"That's not what I meant!" the youngest hissed. "I know," said the oldest. "But we gotta go. We can't let your folks come looking for us. They would ask what we are doing behind the snowmobile. We have to go."
The middle one finally spoke. "I won't be able to eat." The three boys stood up and slowly walked toward the street.
When they got to their destination, they scarcely noticed the strange pickup that was sitting in the driveway. They slowly climbed the porch steps as though it were a gallows scaffolding, and stepped quietly inside.
"Is that you, boys?" a cheerful voice called out. "Wash up in the basement bathroom. The one here is occupied."
The boys trudged downstairs, and reappeared a few minutes later. Dad was seated at the table already. They all sat down at the table with the resigned air of the condemned. Mom appeared with a bowl of mashed potatoes and sat down with them.
"How was your day?" she asked. "Did you have fun?"
"Okay," they all muttered. The youngest looked up and noticed another place setting. "Who's eatin' with us?"
"Oh, you remember Mr. Brown. You met him at church last Sunday. The new sheriff?"