Monday, January 6, 2014

Acceptably Pretending

The screen door would give you away--that was the secret. Of course, that's the secret all screen doors share, but as a child you don't know these things. You learn the language of the door, the way to press slowly, but only to there; to let it fall free behind you, but nick it with your toe before the hard slap of wood and buzz of spring coil. From there, feet flee across concrete, through another (quieter) door, and then it's around the side of the house, ducking low to avoid detection through the pantry and den windows. Across the grass--a space of half a hundred feet, but by the time your hand is slipping the wire loop over the post and pushing the gate across tall grass, you have crossed to a world free of parents and expectations. You close the gate behind you--one less witness to your whereabouts--and a new world falls out before you, camouflaged in grapevines and apple trees and a hill that slopes down to the sheep pen. This is the second secret: to get to the slope, to where it is impossible to be seen from road or house, and where everything can become what it wanted to be but didn't know how.

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It was easier in Connecticut, of course: there was a dog. A girl can pass through doors without suspicion with a tennis ball in her hand and a golden retriever at her heels. Down the concrete ramp, a few casual throws toward the skunk-cabbagey woods before the dog has found the welcome cool of the swamp, and you are free to slink across the wide yard to the Rockies, the small range towering 8, maybe 10 feet over the prairie of garden and lawn. (Of course, there was a secreter way, but this involved passing were the yellowjackets were. You had been there once, but that was with Gretchen, and somehow the gold-plated buzzards had kept respectful distance from the soft German accent, the smell of potato pancakes providing some sort of cloak with which you could pass them unstung. But without these protections, the overland route was safer.) And up in the altitudes of the unseen, you were no loner awkward and alone, but strong and purposeful, with work to be done.

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"What do you pretend out there?"
You are too old to play pretend, make believe, imagine things. You have tried to squelch the inclination, but it elbows and eeks its way out. This day, it had started as service--walking along the edge of the pond, you had seen how the water was choked in its draining, leaves and branches nearly blocking the paved way. Finding a dry branch, you had cleared the rest, and watched the water pour out and onto other places--how water could be so determined after sitting so still was its own kind of hypnotic and soon the branch had become something else, and you hadn't realized you were skipping and swinging and talking until too late--and across the glaring, blank, exposed water, you see straight through windows, straight into eyes. You had forgotten the secrets, somehow. You try to unskip, unswing--to drop the branch so that it would be forgotten. You wander idly. You feign watching a duck, a jet trail in the sky. You return, slowly, waiting for the watchers to distract themselves. Entering the house, you had been hopeful--food was being set on a table, life was churning again--but the question is posed and none of the secrets help you.

Years later in a college creative writing class you will identify this moment as when you started writing in earnest: because it was the only acceptable way to keep playing pretend.


  1. Sigh…so, when is your book coming out? 'Cuz we all want to get in on the worlds you can write. That first paragraph is masterful.
    And I remember Gretchen, God bless her. "Soft" is just the right word for her.

    1. Yeah, I felt that, too--the first paragraph was where the action was. Though, credit where credit is due, under the Good Artists Create, Great Artists Steal category, the last line is pilfered from the movie "Waitress," as Joe (played by Andy Griffith) waxes poetic about a pie that makes strawberries taste the way they always wanted to taste, but never knew how.