When the sun burned off morning dew and dispersed its glow across the grassblades, the children emerged blinking from behind rust crusted screen doors. Bouncing down steps then bounding down driveways, they skipped over diamond-white sun baked sidewalks to the pre-determined meeting place. The early children claimed the coolest spots under the oak, clamoring close to the rough shanks of its stony trunk. There was comfort under the old boughs where the westward sun’s cutting path would never quite slice. In normal echelons of childhood society the big kids would naturally engender deference from the younger, smaller and presumably weaker generations. But this business was conducted in its way since time immemorial; no boy or girl was above the law. The first ones set the path of the day, for it was these firsts who began the day’s game anew.
Three they were, nestling up to the trunk ruling a patch of earth between the curb’s curvature and the sharply edged line of the sidewalk. One boy they knew as Dart, a lanky stretch of youth whose hair thickly covered his eyes no matter how many times he slapped it away. To his left sat Wash, a pretty girl with pigtails and a well-worn strawberry dress that at one time could have been white but had long since yellowed in the sticky sweat of summertime. To Dart’s right was the new boy. He was yet untested, an inductee waiting to be molded by the mores of the neighborhood. The nameless boy had not struggled to make friends, as his game was the newest of all the collections. That made him Owner, a high title, and also Banker, which he bore with the dignity and gravitas that was expected of the position. Though the three originators of today’s game drew plenty of dappled shade beneath the oak boughs, the game itself seemed to glow from within.
No one drew the breath that said the word, but it hung there slightly out of mind.
The new boy, now cross-legged and tense in concentration, distributed each dyed paper slip as if it really held the value printed on its face. He handled the bills like they carried a weight beyond their mass-produced fibers; this was the ritual to which the Banker must devote his whole mind. Dart and Wash assembled their growing fortunes carefully. Dart favored the Midas technique, stuffing his left fist with every bill into a mystery wad to confuse competitors. Wash, a younger girl, laid out each bill stack in a rainbow of wealth under her oft-skinned knees. The new kid threw his cash into a pile, letting it heap as his presumed success made it grow.
A rattling fist signified the first roll. Movement commenced, deals were struck. A betrayal, a scheme, and a well-timed gamble marked the thickest action –all before a single lap of the pewter combatants was complete.
The shady spots were soon filled by new players, observers and general hangers-on. The younger kids who had not yet grown an attention span flitted in and out of the circle, determined to be part of the action but always drawn out to errant sprinklers and loose neighborhood dogs. As many as twelve viable names were counted in the action at any one time. Some fell; Dart was out before lunchtime but yielded little ground to his replacement scrunched against the trunk.
A note rang.
At the edge of the conclave the littlest boy with the sharpest ears turned his head. The road stretched on to the edge of his vision, trees and brick facades lining the valley of his homelife. He felt the chime more than heard it, and as he strained his eyes he saw what he thought was a single glistening star. And it grew brighter.
Shadows got longer. Porchlights hummed in their evening entre’ acte, building to a crescendo of diffusion and warm half-glows. Porch doors clacked open, mothers called to progeny. Christian names supplanted the codenames of the gameboard gladiators as they were called forth from the arena. Tallies were counted; final transactions sped from lips and handshake deals – even those formalized by the entwining of pinkies in a double-oath – were underhandedly voided by crossed fingers. The Boy Who Saw The Star kept watch over his shoulder. The white light grew brighter, a cloud silently drifting on an asphalt night. Others soon saw, and heard the note again. A single, clear note cutting through the chatter trumped the game, trumped the invisible tethers binding child to dinner bell, trumped all reason and attention.
As it grew they saw the light for what it was, a single man with his white pushcart. All else was white, from the aglets on his laces to the curly wisps clinging brazenly to his shining white brow. His eyes shone white though a girl clearly saw they were blue – and yet they had their own light. Mothers had come and gone from porches, returning to the toils of stovetop witchery. The parade came next, a motorcade of fathers returning from their own arenas to resume their mantles as lords and providers. And on the man drew, holding each child’s eyes as a conductor strikes up his orchestra.
The rubber-soled rumbling steel beasts took their places in driveways and discharged their masters. On the man trod, approaching his audience with the terrible magnificence of the Holy. He offered no word, he simply compelled, and a child emerged from the rabble arm outstretched. It was Dart clenching a fistful of money. He marched a dead man’s march, breath stilled in the twilight. All color was drained from the world; summer’s yellows and greens ran and hid from the night and winked from existence in the presence of the old man’s white coat and cart. Its wheels squeaked to a stop.
He curled his lips upward to meet his cheeks, a fine display of wisdom and health and inviting curiosity. Trembling now, Dart reached his fist ever forward, dropping the crumpled bills into the man’s hand. It disappeared under his coat and his smile turned serious, though it never left his eyes. The business at hand required some forethought. After a day of rites and traditions this now replaced all thought of paradigm. There was only the transaction.
The man reached down and peeled back the cart lid. Smoke frothed over its sides, and several of the closer kids stepped away. With a last casual glance at his audience to tabulate their concentration, the man thrust his arm into the white box where it disappeared into the fog. A few swishes of his shoulder and up it went again, this time holding a brightly colored box. It replaced all other light in their world. Even the gleaming white cufflinks catching every glint of houselamp could not out-sing the brilliance of the box. Dart stood as a squire awaits the touch of a sword to his shoulder on the day of his knighthood. The old man placed the box in Dart’s outstretched palm, and the contact was like a jolt of power and joy. It filled the boy, blew his hair back, made him run with wings to his house on the corner.
And in seeing this, another brave soul stepped forth. Wash was followed by a skinny girl they called Toady, and in each reception the reaction was repeated. When the last child received the last box, the old man took one more look at the houses along the street. He saw that they were good, and in each home a happy family gathered for the news of the day. The white cart lid snapped shut and he gripped a handle. With a small shove he was off, continuing his pilgrimage of the city’s streets.
At kitchen tables everywhere, excitement bubbled forth. Every child ate with ravenous speed, knowing the prize that awaited the end of the meal. Though they endured talk of business and politics and other grown-up things, it was all worth it for that first opening of their prize, that first bite of the ice cream within.
Bryan Mahoney is a columnist for The Burbank Leader when he’s not wrestling snakes. He lives in Los Angeles with Joxer the Mighty. There is a drink in Portugal named after him. Only one of these statements is not true.
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