There was a bite in the air. A sharp chill that reminded us summer was long gone, but winter had not yet taken over. It’s mostly a transition time, a period of turning and changing when plans are carved out, but not always understood. It’s the time when the chill of life blows in, but is held in check by the sun. September and October had come and gone like the leaves that tormented the ground. Old autumn foliage, once bright and alive, now timeworn and crunchy beneath our feet. Spread across front yards and street corners, like butter on toast. We had decided together that the leaves had definitely been there long enough to make some money off desperate homeowners, too old and busy to rake. We absolutely, like children do, convinced ourselves and each other that this was a good job opportunity; an endeavor worthy of pursuit. Even though there were only five houses on my dad’s street, one mine another hers. But, we had big plans. It was the essence of childhood that we embraced that day. Climbing hopes of making pockets full of money, we already had it spent in our imaginations. Yet, the dreams of children are large and possible, easy to adopt, they are turned around and around, discussed, as if success were only a minute away. Although, these dreams are quickly abandoned when the slimmest hint of reality emerges. Which I suppose is what makes them so attractive to little minds and hands eager to try on maturity.
The sky was blue that day, and the wind picked up leaves like rag dolls, casting them down with compassion and tenderness. I was armed with a rake, and a hope. I had on a new winter coat. I remember crystal clear, because of the exquisite contrast of bright red blood against that soft pink cotton. I was knees and elbow, uneven in general and past do for a haircut. My chocolate- colored bangs straight and stubborn, hung over my eyelids. I had just started fifth grade in the middle school, Ms. Ziniti was my teacher. I didn’t have many friends, but I was sort of a loner, book reader, thinker, always marching to the drum of my own ideas. Going back and forth on the weekends between Mom’s and Dad’s house didn’t leave a lot of time for sleepovers and friends. I mostly played with the availables. Elaina was my neighbor at Dad’s house, Jennifer was my neighbor at mom’s house. Both girls were one year older than me.
Elaina was worse off than I was. One time we shared a toilet, I noticed her underwear, which I supposed white, was a dingy gray and worn thin. I remember thinking how does underwear get dirty on the outside? But she was always slightly dirty. Elaina never wanted me in her house. She had no father. She lived with her mom and grandmother, both looked like grandmas to me. They were the poorest people I knew, but her yard was our favorite playground. In the back behind her house we would dig for china, and I mean actually china. We found all sorts of broken pieces of plates with little blue painted houses, and ceramic shards, we were desperate children looking for treasures, even if it was someone’s old trash pile, but her mother was too drunk to know or care. She had mint leaves growing in her front yard, my first taste of a fresh herb, and cherry tomatoes that grew tended, along a white picket fence. In the side yard, beside an old barn, she had a large broken down fishing boat. To us children it was as big as a ship. We spent hours in that rotting, wooden house, our very own space, where we made the rules and decisions, away from the clutter of truth.
Elaina and I were only friends every other weekend. She was taller than me, with long dirty blonde hair that never seemed brushed. Her shorts were always too short and her tops were always too big. And everything she owned seemed faded, washed out, worn out, but she was my friend, it didn’t matter to me that she smelled, we had fun together. Sometimes in childhood one can enter into pure life. The pure life transcends status, skills, appearance or popularity. Elaina wasn’t all that smart that I remember and we never stayed in touch, but we shared childhood – a sacred and a pure life of creativity, exploring the world, building, role playing, cooperation, and working through conflict. Children can experience real adult life while its safe, non-threatening and without the consequences of real life, we did that together. and then she was gone. Middle childhood is sort of like the close of summer, the cool wind before the sting of winter. Our season of childhood ended and with it our friendship like the fallen leaves, there was no goodbye. I can’t even remember her last name. Some things happen like that – they come and they go, they change us secretly in unseen ways.
We walked that fall day side by side with our rakes and our plans, chit chatting in girlish tones. The street is cobblestone like, rocky and rough. We rarely used anything, but the exact middle of the road when we walked the narrow path. We had passed by the two hound puppies fenced in with chicken wire, at the end of the street, we passed the overgrown brush, where we built forts and I would have my first kiss years later. We had only gone to one house at that point. I think we fought over who would go to the door, I must have won. She went to the front door while I waited at the end of the driveway. The house was big, beautiful and set back, we assumed they were rich, they had a big green yard and a river. But not rich enough to pay us to rake. The next house was Elaina’s and then Walter’s. We debated whether to ask Walter, he was a little strange, and in the end it was unanimous.
Walter lived in a large abandoned church. It sat right close to the street with an unpainted, stockade fence that stretched all the way across the yard to hide his junk. He had a German accent. Dad did not like Walter’s junk. He was nice, but isolated, which made him awkward, because naturally we always spurn those we don’t understand. As we approached the driveway, Walter’s dog, Crystal, came out to greet us? We were familiar with Crystal, a medium size, golden mutt, this was before the leash law was enforced so we were used to neighborhood dogs. My father and mother both had dogs, so I wasn’t shy, I had no reason to be afraid yet. Alongside of that childhood innocence of big dreams and simple plans, and pure creative thoughts, lies something else, naivety. All things are safe.
We immediately stopped to say hello to Crystal, who approached us in what seemed a friendly manner. We knew she had delivered some puppies a few weeks prior but had not seen them. It didn’t occur to me that the rake may have frightened her, it certainly had not occurred to me that maybe Walter a time or two had swatted her with a rake. But either way, dogs don’t tell you that stuff, they don’t yell, they don’t reason, or explain, but they do use their mouth when they want you to get away.
I had bent over to pat her and weather she was playing, or warning I will never know, but she jumped up. It happened very fast. I thought maybe she was jumping up to lick me. I mostly felt pressure, the way a puppy sometimes mouths your hand playfully and ignorantly with wet, immature teeth. It didn’t hurt, I wasn’t crying, I didn’t even realize the skin had broken. The very first emotion I remember having, was embarrassment. I just felt embarrassed that I had given crystal, the time of day, or even wanted to pat her when she so quickly rejected my affections. It hadn’t occurred to me what had just happened. That I had just been as my mother said, a hundred times after, “Attacked by a dog”. I didn’t look at it that way, she had not growled, or knocked me down, she was if it’s possible very gentle. She released quickly and stood there. She didn’t seem angry, and frankly I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t run away. I straightened up and we walked on, as if nothing happened, as if she hadn’t just bit my face.
My yard was across the street and the street was narrow, so we walked toward my house. I started discussing which house we would go to next. It’s a funny thing, sometimes when we are badly hurt– we don’t even recognize it, its takes someone walking beside us to point out that we need help. Sometimes it’s the people closest to us, looking right at us who see what we cannot. I wonder now if Walter ever had someone to walk beside him.
“Um, you’re bleeding” Elaina said, with a hint of concern in her voice, as she stared at my face.”I think you better go home.” We stopped and I looked down at my pink cotton coat which was splattered with fresh blood dripping at a constant rate. Neither one of us were panicked, or worried, in fact I told Elaina to: “wait on my front steps while I got a band – aid.” Well, there’s something else that’s funny, sometimes when we are hurt it scares the hell out of people who love us. My step-mom took one look at my face, and started to scream. “Michael, Michael get up here, Walter’s dog bit your daughter”, she called out in a panicked voice to my dad who was working in the basement. Even though she had known me since I was 6, suddenly I was ‘my Fathers daughter’, maybe she forgot my name. We do funny things when we are afraid, when we don’t know what to do and are just figuring things out as we go. No one gives a manual for childhood dramas, like dog bites. She wouldn’t let me look in the mirror, but i didn’t have to the look on her face was mirror enough. She gave me a wet rag to hold over my wounds. I heard my dad’s heavy footsteps rush madly up the stairs. “What? What’s a matter? What happened” he looked at me, and said, “oh my God” and then we began to weather the storm. As they decided if they should call an ambulance or drive directly to the hospital. I pleaded with my sister Tammy, to come with me. I had now fully assumed the fear that was filling up the house quickly like a brush fire, by adults who knew better.
My older sister was sitting calmly on the couch with her boyfriend, and declined my pleas. I wasn’t afraid because of the pain i felt, my face barely hurt, other than intense throbbing. I was afraid to go to the hospital, I was afraid to be alone. “No I’m sorry, Kim- I can’t.”
“Please Tammy please, come with me? I was so afraid I didn’t know what was going to happen, that was the scariest thing. How bad really was it? The dog biting me happened too quickly I didn’t have time to think or be afraid, but now I had lots of time to imagine the worst at the hospital. what I realized now as an adult, that’s mostly what people are afraid of; not what we know, but what we don’t know.
I can’t remember the hospital waiting room, but I do remember sitting on the hospital bed while the doctor stitched me up. I remember he said, “you’re one lucky little girl, because of the grip the dog had on your face, he could have torn your face off, and because of where one of his teeth went in, you could have lost your eye.” Yes, I do believe that angels encamp around those who fear God. I do believe God is a rear guard, a shelter and that he hides us in his wings, leads us with fire and storm clouds and commands dogs to release.
I have two minor scars on my face, a small reminder of God’s salvation and protection, even before I was old enough to ask. The dog wasn’t so lucky; Crystal and all her puppies were put to sleep, Dad sued Walter to pay for the hospital bills. I felt guilty about that, as if it were my fault. i knew Walter had nothing to begin with. He was a junk collector, selling old car parts to buy food, living in a forgotten church that had caught fire twice, with no family, no mercy, not even a friend to walk with him and tell him he needs help, just a faithful dog, and now not even her.
I was black and blue with band aids and stitches, not a pretty site, but I insisted on going to school immediately, I insisted on getting my pictures taken on picture day in that wicked state. I’m not sure if I wanted the attention, or to prove my bravery. i accomplished both.
So that’s it, a chapter gone in my life, a memory. An autumn past, a friend I no longer know, a dog who no longer lives, a wound that healed, a neighbor that lost everything? Life is a story, a continuous flowing form, a season that keeps growing and changing. If we are really lucky we learn from the storms along the way, we learn how to do life. We learn that we effect each other, we bear the seasons together, we live through the moments, and we pass through afflictions that scare us the with confidence and bravery. we start out like young leaves and move slowly through space and time until we are worn out and swept away with a late autumn gust.
Occasionally while we plan on one thing something entirely different throws us off course. Elaina and I never finished our business endeavor, our plans were at best forgotten and outgrown; but something important still happened, I endured… the bite in the air, the autumn chill of childhood and adolescence.