I spent two hours in the garden this evening weeding and hoeing, digesting the import of the Poetry Friday word "slide." I couldn't even begin to fathom a poem using it, and since most of my poetry is prose doggrel I abandoned that line of thought pretty fast. The only thing I could really get my mitts on is a semi-autobiographical story about my childhood. Specifically my grade school playground, and the giant silver deathtrap that resided there.
Not just a descriptor, it was a command. "Slide!" Shouted by clumps and knots of sweaty six and seven year olds egging each other on to greater speed, greater daring. "Slide!" they shouted, and slide they did, one after the other, on through the recess hour.
Growing up was a strange thing for me. Not that it's particularly pleasant for anyone I would think, but my childhood was troubled. Pained. It was a breech in a world of normal births, a steel lock in a world of wooden doors. It's blotched here and there with memories tied to real physical things that have become permanent features of my mental landscape--for good or bad they're there, immovable, and oftimes they serve as navigation points for my life.
One of those immovable objects is The Slide. There were two of them out there on the vast expanse of black asphalt that was our Catholic school playground, but only one mattered. They were identical beasts--all dull silver steel ladders with sharp raised patterns to catch and hold tennis shoes, or slice skin off bare knees or shins with frightening ease, all steep slopes of sun-heated metal with narrow rolled edges, barely enough to keep a body in line with it's sudden stop at the asphalt bottom. They both had two places where the metal overlapped on the way down, rivets smoothed into near nonexistence on top, short sharp bolts hanging out on the bottom. One was The Girls and one was The Boys, and never the twain should meet.
Why we were segregated by sex to water fountains and parts of the playground and slides never made sense to me, not then, not now. The two stood not four feet apart--if you had a particularly daring and willing female parter the pair of you in a feat of perfect timing and exquisite danger could slide down hand-in-hand, each on their own down-ramp of sun-baked hell. The nuns, however, kept a sharp eye on us, so there was no fraternizing. This left me to the pack of wild-eyed near-animals that are six year old boys, all sweaty palms and fevered brows and loud barking voices.
I can't remember the first time I went down The Slide, but I know I must have at some point. Otherwise I'd still be standing there at the top, looking down at that red flower. Growing up in the country meant that I had never seen a slide quite that big, quite that industrial. The biggest slide I had ever played on was a tiny plastic thing that was barely longer than my legs, and allowed no more daring a speed than a slow, skin-grabbing, squeaking falter to the wading pool at the bottom. This thing, this brute, standing there baking in the summer sun, a testament to the metal-worker's art, it was huge. It loomed. And I had no choice but to go down it.
Chase was fine--running in circles, here and there, darting behind pecan trees or around the old maintenance building that at one time had been someone's shotgun house. Kickball was fine too, a simple act of kicking and running. The Slide held it's own, though, on the playground. Everyone slid. Everyone waited in line for it at some point during recess, even in the middle of sweltering summer heat, when the sun made wavering mirages all about it, hazing it into a dreamlike softness. And without knowing it, somehow one hot afternoon I ended up in the line to climb the ladder, shuffling forward, wishing I could block my ears to the constant din of screaming children's voices. Ready to slide.
Before I knew it my feet were moving slowly up those toothy treads, and my hands were sliding up the metal rails that were rusty but smooth--years of constant sweaty hands running up and down the steel had brushed and polished the rust into a sort of glassine patina that felt like water under my palms. I climbed forever, it seemed, the shouts of that noun-turned-explicative loud in my head, driving me up, ever up, until I found myself out of steps and staring down at a sheet of steel shimmering at my feet.
I was terrified, and my fear turned my legs to wood, my feet to chunks of lead. I had no idea how far it was down until I was looking at it, had no sense of how very far up I was. I knew I had to step up and OUT, over onto that long, simmering hot swath of dull steel but I couldn't make myself move. The shouts got louder and louder, turning into demands, into taunts. Kids were already piling up on the ladder behind me, and I knew if I did not get myself moving downward I would feel calloused, sweaty hands pushing me, face first if necessary, so that the procession could go on. And on. And on.
It was then that I heard the little girl scream. I followed her pointing finger from the top of her slide to the underside of my own slide, where a boy my size was just emerging. It was John, a friend of mine. He was a big kid, thick, and as country as peeing off the front porch. He spoke slowly, he always had a smile pasted on his broad face, and his thicket of black curls looked like the mane of a goat. As I glanced down at him I saw those black curls awash in crimson, and a peculiar folded-over quality to his scalp showed me the thin white lines and pink muscle tissue that lay just under his thatch of black curls, cradling his skull in warm pink meat.
The screaming went on and on, catching like wildfire in dry grass under that scorching summer sun. He had been playing chase and taken an evasive route under my slide, where his corn-fed height had put his scalp just in line with one of those sharp bolts lurking in the cool shade, the bolt hiding under that slope that had just sliced his skin open like a tooth tears the tender skin of a peach. Revealing the layered pink striations of muscle tissue. Letting the blood flow like someone upending a bottle of wine across a black and white tablecloth.
The children behind me were scrambling away from the scene while the nuns came hobbling and creaking toward him, calling in their old crow voices for someone to get the nurse, to call an ambulance, to stay calm, to get off the playground and back to your rooms.
I don't remember the long glide down, don't recall the heat that no doubt burned the skin on the backs of my calves, but I can still feel the soft impact of the worn soles of my tennis shoes on the sun-softened asphalt at the bottom of the slide.