My first real friend, my first chosen friend, was Phillip Kent. He lived across the street from me in Atlanta and was the youngest of four boys. His brothers were high school aged and older when we were in third grade. His mother liked to say he was a “blessing.” I agreed.
We moved from “the apartment” to the house across the street from the Kents and Phillip introduced me to the joy and wonder of the creek. The creek was a small stream that ran behind his house bordered by banks about a foot high. In the spring it was full of pinchy crawdads and tadpoles as big as Tootsie Pops. We would kneel on the side and scoop the life out of it, capturing wonder in Mason jars. When the weather grew warmer we would stand bare legged, water half way up our shins and watch critters swim under the water and rest on top.
My mother would rant and rail against the Georgia clay ground into my clothes on my adventures with Phillip. “Stay out of that creek!” she would shout, though we both knew it was for not. Before there was Phillip I had hosted tea parties and taught school with a legion of stuffed animals. I can’t imagine now what I had to offer him, though he would take a place at the tea table on occasion. Besides the creek and all it had to offer he tutored me in kick ball and won us a place in a pack of older kids who roamed the neighborhood.
Phillip and I planned rock concerts for our parents, who sat politely in folding chairs while we showed them treasures from our rock collections. We spent the night at each other’s houses to the delight of his older brothers who hoped we were setting precedent. Near the end of the third grade we were allowed to walk home from school together.
It was a few blocks, five at most, made longer by having to cross at the light and come around “the long way.” It was a hard-won battle and we were sworn to cross with the guard at the busy street. Mostly we did, but on days that we lingered on the playground after school, we would walk the winding road that led to a path through a wooded area that backed up to our street. The shortcut covered our naughtiness.
On a day without a cloud in the sky we decided to take the shorter route. We ambled along the empty road until it spit us out at the edge of the busy street. This side street was just over a crest in a hill and we sprinted across, exuberant in our deception.
I was just in front of Phillip so I cannot explain the clear image that I hold in my head of his body as it flew over ten feet in the air after being hit by the car. I have no memory of the sound of the wheels as they skidded to stop or the impact of the car when it hit him. I cannot remember a single detail about the car or the woman who was driving it. I did turn back to see the papers from his notebook raining down around him.
I do remember the woods and the trees, some no larger than sticks, as they blurred by in my peripheral vision. I remember the pounding of my heart and the stitch in my side as I ran across the lawns of our neighbors, home, to tell my mother that Phillip was hurt.
I burst through the front door screaming, “Mom, Mom! Phillip was hit by a car – you have to come!” She did not say a word, but grabbed her keys and drove right to the spot, the spot that she must have worried over the dozens of times we walked home uneventfully.
In the few minutes that it took us to drive there, neither of us spoke a word. Just as we arrived one of Phillip’s brothers came running down the street, his arms held wide, screaming his name. There was a crowd and then there was the ambulance.
He was in the hospital for months. A ruptured spleen, countless broken bones, a collapsed lung. He would miss the rest of the school year, but he would live. “I heard she was driving too fast.” “The children weren’t supposed to be walking home that way.” “I heard she swerved to miss Trish.” The women of the neighborhood whispered in clusters on the curbs of our street.
At the beginning of summer vacation my mother took me on a trip to see one of our friends. On the day we bought matching clogs she told me that my parents were getting a divorce and that it was not my fault.
Phillip was not out of the hospital before we moved. I did not see him again until I was in college, back in Atlanta for a visit. He was a man I did not recognize and some of the old neighbors said he never really recovered after the accident. He was my first friend and that day in the woods I am not sure if I was chasing it or if it was chasing me, but that was the first time I felt death in my presence and we were there both breathing hard.