Although the rectangular brown and tan box that was Tanglewood II perched unremarkably on an asphalt hill facing due east, the surrounding environs of the apartments were ideal. At least for anyone under the age of twelve or without reliable means of transportation. I qualified on both accounts. Within three blocks of our apartment complex were the public library, the city park (including swimming pool and tennis courts), and other essentials such as Gibson’s Department Store and Dairy Queen. We could walk or bike to any of these enticing locales and lose an entire afternoon. Until the shrill sounds of a coach’s whistle blew its trademark long-short-short-long: fweeeeeeet-fweet-fweet-fweeeeeeet!
Whereas Nanda drove through the neighborhood honking the Buick LeSabre’s flatulent horn, mom’s official get-your-ass-home alarm was a silver coach’s whistle worn around her neck. Our prime location near the town’s epicenter meant all she had to do was step outside Apartment 16 on the second floor and put painted red lips to the silver coach’s whistle. If need be, she could walk downhill to the curbside and signal us home from farther destinations. Any time, any place, I could expect to hear the insistent f-sharp long-short-short-long hoots from mom’s whistle.
On the sprawling grounds of the public library, Michael D. and I scavenged for grape-sized crabapples to engage in fierce battles where stinging red welts were badges of honor. Finally one surrendered to the other and we’d recline under the trees, eating the remaining tart munitions until our bellies ached. Out back the older neighborhood boys—my brother included—improvised football or baseball games going so far as the clichéd broken glass window that took Danny months to repay.
Inside the library, an expansive French Provincial stone house, there were covert games of hide and seek along with the equally compelling grandeur of the polished marbled hallways, coffered ceilings, and walls upon walls of books. It felt like visiting royalty. In the Children’s Reading Room, brightly colored umbrellas hung upside-down from the ceiling and there was the pervasive classic smell of lemon oil. This was nothing like the fake wood-panelling and gold shag carpet at Tanglewood.
I’d spend hours in the stillness of that reading room, my head cocked to the side scanning each title. Occasionally I slid out one select volume to study its cover, half expecting the entire bookcase to pivot and reveal some secret staircase winding down, down, down. There was the Hardy Boys’ Mystery of the Spiral Bridge and The Haunted Fort (I waited endlessly one summer for the publication of #58, The Sting of the Scorpion), Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty whose stallion’s proud musculature I traced repeatedly with my index finger, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, and Dr. Suess’s Go Dog Go, my favorite being the page where scores of dogs all shape, size, and color are tucked in bed together cast in midnight blue with a perfect crescent moon glowing through the window. Worlds within worlds at my fingertips. I became someone else in another time and place far, far away. Even from within these stone walls, my reverie would often be broken by the fweeeeeeet-fweet-fweet-fweeeeeeet! call to come home.
At the city pool it was the intoxicating smell of chlorine, fifty cents for admission, and a full day of courage-building to finally jump off the high diving board. The older teenaged boys did half gainers, somersaults, and free dives with a reckless abandon I admired, and not without my noticing their rippled stomachs and the furtive appearance of hair on their bodies—signs of a physical maturity Michael D. and I lacked. We kept our shirts on throughout the day even if it got unbearably hot or we tired of them sticking to our backs. At last we’d get up the gumption to stand in line for the high dive. It was an unspoken rule that if you started climbing that ladder, there was no turning back. Michael D. did start crying once as he reached the top and in a rare show of mercy, the crowd allowed him to climb back down. We much preferred sticking to simple cannonballs at the shallow end where we were the big kids.
Always in a desperate pinch for money, we scoured the grassy perimeter of the pool looking for unattended bags, clothing and shoes, for it was common practice to leave coins for vending machines in the heels of sneakers. We got lucky finding quarters from two pairs of tennis shoes belonging to twin girls, older teens, then unlucky when caught, staring into the face of two towering brown-eyed amazons who I swear were cross-eyed. We returned their money and promised that we had learned our lesson. Comparing tanned forearms and wrinkled fingertips, we walked back to apartment 16 where we made Miracle Whip sandwiches and fought over the last of the Doritos.
More often than not, we’d end up playing over at Michael D.’s house. It stood directly behind Tanglewood II and reminded me of the iconic Psycho mansion, a run-down two-story Victorian that Mr. Ewells was always planning to fix up. It loomed there on a rambling corner lot that took up nearly an entire block, the yard totally overgrown so that the house peeked in and out of ragged trees. With all that outdoor space, it was perfect for backyard camping, fort-building, and an impressive tree-house headquarters. The inside was just as unkempt and even more mysterious with its tall, water-stained ceilings and dank spare rooms filled with boxes and old suitcases. Mr. Ewells worked long hours at a machine shop while Mrs. Ewells wandered aimlessly through the house, cleaning and organizing yet never making any progress. The lack of supervision meant a thrilling free-reign for Michael D. and me. So when the fweeeeeeet-fweet-fweet-fweeeeeeet! summoned me from the Ewells’ house, it wasn’t without the feeling of being caught. Or rescued. I couldn’t tell which.
Michael D. had an older brother too, but Kevin didn’t come around much and hung with a rougher crowd. Michael D. and I looked and acted more alike than he and Kevin. Most folks thought we were twins, fraternal at the least—same height, same brown eyes and bowl-cut brown hair and some even called us “The Michael Brothers.” Though a year apart, we shared the same birthday, same first and middle name, almost—his Dwayne, mine Wayne—and the same corner of North Street.
Catty-corner from the Ewells’ house was the city park where we raced sticks in the gutters, swung until our palms blistered, and scaled the giant rocket slide soaring some fifty feet into the air. There, out of the view of our peers, we agreed to daring acts like climbing up the ladder to disembark at the slide and, instead, we grasped the metal bars of the cage and gingerly made our way around the outside and back to the opening. From the rocket’s red nose, a panoramic view: the regal white stone library, the faded and pock-marked tennis courts, the chlorine-blue city pool, and home. We were powerful. We were gods. Until the wind carried on its back the faint sounds of that silver whistle, fweeeeeeet-fweet-fweet-fweeeeeeet!
It was near midnight when I awoke to Danny sliding open our bedroom window in an attempt to sneak out of the apartment. I said I was telling and with no other recourse, he allowed me to tag along all the way to the middle of those pock-marked tennis courts where it was pitch black.
“What ‘er we doin’ here?”
“Shhh. Be quiet,” my brother scolded.
“Why? What ‘er we doin’?”
“Waitin’ to make sure no one sees us, dumb-ass.”
“Alright. I think we’re clear,” and he pulled out a tiny wrinkled cigarette. This was the big time.
“It’s like a cigarette,” he explained.
“Just inhale and hold it. Like this. Watch…”
I stared at the glowing tip growing brighter as he skillfully inhaled three staccato breaths.
“Now your turn.”
“Okay.” Taking the cigarette between thumb and forefinger, I put my lips to the flattened wet end. I managed to hold in the smoke a millisecond before coughing fitfully, my throat scorched and raw from the attempt.
“Shhhhhh! You gonna wake the entire neighborhood!”
“Feel anything?” he asked through a held breath.
“No. I don’t think so…” I was so excited, I couldn’t tell.
“Just give it a minute.”
Danny leaned against the net at mid-court and crossed his legs at the ankles. Over his shoulder, I could just make out the cone-shaped outline of the rocket slide in the distance.
“I think I feel something.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“Like… Like I’m… like I’m shrink-ing.”
Whether I felt anything or not, I’d heard the term getting small so it was the best I could offer.
“I feel like I’m getting really really… tiny.”
He bursts into high-pitched laughter coughing out clouds of smoke, only to be stopped stone cold when we both hear fweeeeeeet-fweet-fweet-fweeeeeeet!
“Just act normal, just act straight, ‘kay?” Danny kept saying all the way back to the apartment. And right before we went in,
“Whatever I say you, just go along with it, got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
In her pink nightgown, mom sat cross-legged in our faux leather recliner with a large glass ashtray in her lap. She exhaled and began talking through clouds of smoke.
“Just what the hell were y’all doin’ outta this apartment at midnight?” I looked down at my dirty bare feet, trying not to laugh at the tickling I felt from the fuzzy shag carpeting.
“You know how I’m always trying to teach Michael some kinda sport or ‘nother? Well I thought he’d like tennis, there not bein’ any physical contact ‘n all. He’s too embarrassed too learn it in the daylight with everbody watchin’. So we started with these late-night lessons.”
“We don’t own any tennis rackets, son,” mom bristled.
“Not yet, maybe. But he’ll get to borrow one in school. We’s just learning the point system and the rules. A sorta walk-thru before he gets to practice for real.” I’m amazed at my brother’s skill.
“Michael-Wayne, was that really what y’all were doing out there?”
I mumbled a yes m’am toward my bare feet.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, son.”
“Yes, m’am,” I said now staring at the top of her pouffy hair.
“Well, you do need to try some kinda sport. You can’t just play that fiddle and study all the time. And tennis is as good as any.”
“That’s right, mom. And he’s already got the point system down.” Danny grinned from relief. Or something else.
“Right?” he looked at me.
“Right. I got it down, man,” I said with uncharacteristic confidence.
Mom sat there deep in thought. I followed her gaze upward to the popcorn ceiling and the whole apartment seemed to ripple and waver in the gathering layers of cigarette smoke.
“Well, Michael Wayne,” she took another long drag on one of her Kent Golden Lights. “Looks like a trip to Gibson’s tomorrow to get you your very own racket,” then she exhaled a modest cumulus cloud.
“How you feel ‘bout them apples?”
“Cool!” I lied.
Having narrowly escaped the interrogation, we slipped into our shared bedroom and turned off the lights without a word. On the foggy edges of sleep, I’m standing on the high diving board and begin to bounce. One. Two. Three. A shirtless lifeguard smiles and waves to me from his elevated throne. He’s wearing red shorts and a silver whistle around his muscular neck. Four. Five. Six. I launch high into the air in a perfect tuck position with plenty of time to double, triple somersault my way back down, down, down into the crystal blue. But right before breaking the water’s surface, I hear the high shrill sounds of fweeeeeeet-fweet-fweet-fweeeeeeet!
Then I’m wide awake.