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
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.
Labels: Musings from the Dream House