Tag Archive: neighborhoods


Prince


Prince


“Here! Meet Prince. Make friends with him!”

A hand between my shoulder blades firmly shoved me forward. I dug in my heels, afraid. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to make friends with Prince. I was terrified of him. I could see what he did to kids. Around me the other kids were crying. Some had deep gouges on their chests and shoulders, some were oozing blood.

The hand shoved again. I was trembling inside; there was no way around it. Prince stared eagerly at me, his eyes bright as drool dribbled down his chin.

We had arrived in the ‘hood perhaps a few months before. We were in our neighbor’s backyard – the one across the street. Everyone envied them their house. It was a long brick ‘ranch’ with a big front and even bigger back yard peppered with those large scaly pines that grow in the South. In the back stood the remains of an old well house; its broken block walls staggered like an old man’s teeth. Another shed stood further behind; its walls narrow and high.  That shed was kept lock most of the time, and for some reason that one still scares me – I can see it in mind’s eyes, the planked door all a cant . . .

Prince stood, tongue lolling from his mouth as he rolled his eyes, watching me.  Waiting.  Waiting for me to come.  The hand pushed me forward again.  It was my mom.  I tried backpedaling but it was futile. Her hands clamped my shoulders and shoved me forward.

“Make friends!” Mom commanded. I could hear the disgust and irritation at my cowardice beneath her cheery tone.  I knew she was covering her irritation at me for our neighbor’s benefit.

“He won’t hurt you!” the other mom cheerfully chirped. Behind her stood her children. Several were still crying, heads down, looking at the long red streaks marking their chests, thighs, and stomachs.  They were still sniffling.

I looked at Prince.  He was chained up good I reckon – I could see a big loop banding the pine’s wide base – but he had a six foot lead. There was a wide circle where he stayed, the chain keeping the ground swept clean.  A battered pine straw rim surrounded it, showing the limits of his range like a boxing ring. Deep scars marked the ground, and you could see where his nails had raked the edge along the ring. Soon they would be raking me.

Taking a firm breath and holding it, I forced myself to step forward. Prince was huge compared to me – a mere six year old. Standing up he could put his chin on top of my mom’s head. She hadn’t any big problem with him; just a little. The grownups were big enough to handle him.  I wasn’t.  None of us kids were.  And he was friendly.

The hand shoved me again as I faltered to a stop.  My mom bent and breathed a curse in my ear.  “Go on and step forward, you little bastard!”  She straightened back up again.

“Go on! He’s friendly enough.” Gone was the anger, again the waiting audience heard cheer.  Mom shoved me again. Her neighbor stood, smiling encouragingly and chirping advice. She’d put Prince out just a few days before and she wanted everyone in the neighborhood to get to know him. After all, he was handsome in his own way. But he was too friendly. That was the problem – he was too friendly and unabashed about his greetings.  If you could count on anything, it was that they were wholehearted. I could see it in his eyes: he could hardly wait.  ‘They’, the grownups, were trying to break him by using us children on him – teaching us how to handle him while teaching him not to hurt us – too much. Either way, it didn’t matter. We were getting torn up.  Prince didn’t care.  He was just confused because they’d pull the last child out from under him just as he’d begun to ‘play’ . . .

The children’s mother alternated between cheering us on and scolding her kids. She wanted them to lead by example, including the ‘not crying’ thing. They were still crying because their scratches hurt. This wasn’t the first time they’d been through this ordeal. They had gone through it a few days earlier, when Prince had first arrived to the neighborhood. I had noticed when we first entered the back yard that they kept their distance from that ring, staying just a few feet outside that ring of dusty sand, looking in. Sometimes they would reach towards him, or he would think they had gotten too close and he would lung, mouth gaping and claws snatching. And he had long claws. Yes, he certainly did.

I had watched ever since my mom had brought me over here, into this green backyard with it’s circle of dirt – watched the kids greeting him one by one – the grownups beating him down when it finally got too much for the kid in question to bear – beating him back with a stick or a broom handle – and then another kid would be asked, or forced to go forward. Each one had gotten a mauling; all except for the older kids. They were almost able to handle him. But even given their size, he was quite a bit bigger than them when he would stand, his back arced against the chain that was binding him to the tree so he would go running away and cause some sort of trouble somewhere else like he had done already. I guess that’s why they were keeping him there; later on, after he had learned this lesson, they were going to let him go roaming and rambling through the neighborhood . . .

And I guess that’s why, in a way, they wanted everyone – especially all of us kids – to meet him. Introducing us to him; letting him sniff us over his his own way and fashion. While also teaching him some manners. There again at our own expense.

I stepped forward; I was now almost in the circle-ring. I took another step or perhaps I was shoved again. I kept getting thrust forward despite all the backpedaling I could do. Gritting my teeth –

He lunged forward, his huge claws raking me down my shoulders; cheeks, chest and chin. Slobber dripped down all over me. I was thrown backward, but those hands kept on supporting me, urging me forward again; those claws came down again, a drool covered tongue licked my cheek; hot breath huffing me in the face . . .

Like burning daggers they are, those claws; raking me down the face.  I remember one kid with a dangling eyelid . . . drooping because he’d gotten hurt in that way . . .

Beating him with sticks the grownups drove him down again; by now I was crying, my scratches were hurting, and I stumbled away while the grownups started laughing. Some of the kids were playing by now, wandering off to do their own thing.

Welcome, Prince, to the neighborhood, welcome to the game . . .

He never was quite human.

After all, he was a dog. A large one. A big black and tan German Shepard who’d been chained to a tree. And his ‘mother’, the owner, wanted everyone to get to know him – and break him of this habit he had of jumping on everyone he met – including us children. Which meant ‘feeding’ us children to him one-by-one and then beating him off of us.

It was a hell of a way to learn. Not just for him, but us children.

And I learned something that day. I learned that sometimes you have to step into the fire, knowing you are going to feel some pain. Maybe a lot of pain. And that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it.

And I resolved not to cry. Ever again. Not that I succeeded. I was always trying to toughen up. Even as a toddler I had resolved not to cry – not when I was beaten, nor threatened with death, nor sitting by the door waiting for the “Bad Men” from the “Bad Boys Home” to come get me and take me away from home. It just strengthened my resolve. I was learning. I was learning to disassociate, put fear from my mind. I was learning to ignore pain; putting it away somewhere in my mind. Every punishment taught me a little more about how not to cry and how to bear more pain. And I had learned – once again – and that there’s no escaping from it. I was going to be hurt. I recognized that walking in. But I had not choice. And that was something I was learning: that sometimes you have no choice – that sometimes Fate (or mothers) will shove you and you’ve got to gather up your courage, or at least your resolve and force yourself to step forward, as if it were a firm and guiding hand.

Halloweens In the Hood


Halloweens In the Hood

When I was a kid I used to love Halloween – I still do. It’s probably my most favorite holiday of all – equaling if not topping Christmas. For Halloween . . . well, there’s something special about that night – and it goes back to my childhood.

We were poor – one of the poorer families around, I reckon, except for the people next to us and the farmer and his wife down the hill and around the bend – though in retrospect I imagine even they had a bit more than we did.  After all: they had a farm and chickens and eggs; they had a huge garden. But they sure looked poor, even to me back then.

The neighbors next door to us were the poorest, even poorer than us – and it showed.  They were so poor I wanted to give them food – and we barely had none.  But we couldn’t afford it, either.  But come Halloween it didn’t matter: all us kids did the best we could.

Store bought costumes were rare. I don’t remember any of mine ever coming from a store. Usually they were made at home – kid’s creations, because our mom wasn’t into helping us with that. “Do without, make do, or do it yourself,” was her homespun philosophy, and as a result one year the best I could do was the classic sheet ‘ghost’ – an old white sheet I had spent days begging out of her, and then at the last minute she came through – finally sacrificing a sheet she had (it was probably ‘good’) for my benefit. I cut holes in it, and still not satisfied (it just looked like a sheet draped over my head), I added some fake ‘blood’ to it by drawing on it with my crayons. That’s a pretty sad excuse for blood, by the way: crayons leave crayon marks, roughened rouge – nothing ‘permanent’ and definitely not very ‘bloody’. So I did my best – drawing claw marks and ‘bites’ – and advertised my presence as a “ghost of a werewolf” – which sounded a lot scarier to me than the stupid sheet I was parading around in the neighborhood looked. I hated that thing; it was an embarrassing ‘disguise’; meanwhile my friends had ‘dressed’ themselves up to look like bums and hobos – a popular costume for the poor kids in the neighborhoods since there were so many. Near-bums and near-hobos, that is. Having their fathers give them the gear, they would blacken their faces with soot, maybe chew on an old cigar stub – and that was it. The entire disguise.

One year we had something special come along. My mom, in her infinite wisdom (and with her husband gone – off fighting a war somewhere – or if the trip to Thailand, whoring around and giving away all our money to Christian charities while his family went hungry and alone) – decided to throw a Halloween party in (and for) the ‘hood – and that I guess is when my love affair with Halloween began.

I well remember that night (as well as a few of them!) – when it all started. The music was playing – Ichabod Crane and his nightly ride from the Headless Horseman playing on the old 45 record player. (I used to listen to that thing often, but we only had a few records to play. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was one of them.) I think we had a small bonfire in the yard, and I can still feel the impending sense of excitement in my mind as night drew down.

My mom had ‘come out’ in all her true colors, dressing up as a witch. I can still see her on the front porch, meeting and greeting the neighbors in. It’s one of the few times that I can remember seeing her truly happy; just beaming with that tall cone hat on her head.

It was a wonderful party, at least to my child’s mind. We had the peeled grapes for eyeballs and spaghetti for brains ‘game’ going on out under the old hall tree which I used to climb – all us kids were thrilled (and grossed out) sitting around ‘blindfolded’ and feeling all these things – while some adult or teenager passed them around with the appropriate story about some dismembered (and apparently some disemboweled, de-headed, and de-brained sort of thing). It was great fun and I had thrilled shivers just having fun while the few old records we owned (at least anything that applied to Halloween) echoed in the ‘hood. The “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was played again and again until I, too, got tired of the thing . . . but (softly smiling) – it’s still a ‘song’ or a record which brings this night back to mind.

Halloweens in the ‘hood were almost always good, despite the poverty and the hassles. The teen from next door – our favorite friend, and friend of my brother’ and brother to my best friend. He was tall and thin with a curly shock of dark hair – and he always treated us good. I think at first – those first few Halloweens – our mother took us around the ‘hood, but on the last one, or the last few, it was the teenager’s (often our babysitter’s) turn. He and I and my older brother; his brother (and my best friend) – and a few other kids from ‘the hood’ would gather around come twilight in his drive – the kids from across the street (also some of my ‘best friends’) – would come, and we would begin – walking up the long hill one way, and back down the other. We were never allowed to leave the hood, nor go past the ‘marker’ – which was the house on top of the hill; nor was there any reason to go below the turn in the ‘hood – past the farmer’s house – because there was not much there. Nor did we go up ‘Cactus Court’ because that’s where the ‘mean kids’ lived (or at least some of them). So our run was rather short – just up a quarter mile hill and back down, hitting a dozen houses – and we were done. I guess that’s why we didn’t have costumes for this thing: there simply was no place to go.

Later on they added on to the ‘hood – bending houses around the corner and back on down towards the road that led to the highway that led towards the nearby town (Augusta, Georgia). And they cut in a new neighborhood – all this was paved – paved roads and everything – but in ‘our’ section of the ‘hood things always remained the same. The pavement ended around the bend at the distant top of the hill, and it was dirt from there on down. Dirty and poor boys, dirty and poor houses, and in some cases, dirty and poor homes. But most of the people in the ‘hood kept things up as best they could – however, it was as if the outside world ignored us – building around the corner, but not down the street. Leaving us all alone.

However . . . that Halloween, the good one I remember with such budding excitement (because I can still feel that anticipation of that good night) – made me a believer in everything . . . and in some ways nothing at all. I discovered the tricks behind Halloween – the ‘eyes’ in a bowl, the boiling up of some ‘brains’ – which was kind of disillusioning, but at the same time gave me some insight into the power we had – the ability to create illusion, pulling the wool and darkness over some eyes – and either terrify or delight them.

I learned a lot about magic at that time. The magic of a moon; my mom’s “witchy” magic, and the magic of Halloween.  How much I loved it; and yet how little I knew . . . for looming on the year’s horizon was another Halloween – one which would destroy everything that I knew.

(Note that I list this story ‘out of season’ and there’s a reason for that: it is time.  We are coming towards the end of the stories of the ‘hood – and our previous life; the one of ‘little Mikie’ and that time.  For what was approaching us was relentless, like a tidal wave – a series of waves then – which would rock my world and turn it inside out – turning ‘him’, our precious little Mikie, into someone else.  Or several someone elses in my case . . . and there would be some strange goings on.  Life has always been interesting . . . )