Kevin and I could have been pirates in some other life. Our shirts mouthing open like foresails, our legs were oars—aboard one Schwinn and one Mongoose bmx bike, and we rode on—around the cul-de-sacs, and through the one-ways, surveying the land—looking for our rightful conquest. We stole our supplies for the tree house from homes under construction in our neighborhood. The construction workers never seemed to notice what little we took. We weren’t vandals. We didn’t trash. We’d take only what was in abundance, the things they wouldn’t notice.
The neighborhood was divided into two sections: Holly Bush One and Holly Bush Two. The older section had single-family homes. I lived in Holly Bush One. Besides being older, the homes were smaller but sold with over an acre of land. My house wore green shutters, egg-white siding, two-car garage, and a red door. There were four big oak trees, holly shrubs, and shredded mulch in the front yard. In the backyard, less than a quarter of it was charted. There was grass, a white shed, a DIY lumber swing-set, and a grill. The backyard was divided. My stepfather didn’t landscape past the swing-set; thus, the rest of the yard was brush, shrubs, oak trees, and trap wire compost bins.
In some parts, the leaves were ankle height—and sometimes singed, and sometimes dark and wet, and everything unkempt. Stepfather would say something about curbside appearance—about the impression of vitality—and while doing homework, I’d watch him landscaped. He’d surround all the trees and shrubs with the dark mulch. Spending hours out there—racking, watering, mowing, weeding, wheel barrowing—just his body and the yard in a constant verbiage. And this was the majority of the neighborhood houses, on any autumn day, the sun would splash its paint across the leaves and the men would bend their tired backs, and with their rakes and like a stomach—swallow the leaves into large tarps, and drag the leaves as if they were the entrails of man and earth, to the backyards and dump what was left of that life that had fallen from out the trees.
All of Holly Bush One’s land was filled. The neighborhood had been extending into Holly Bush Two, which built a new house for what seemed like every couple months. Kevin lived in Holly Bush Two. It was a big single-family home, with four bedrooms, three full-baths, bay windows, and a patio, and though the house was beautiful, new, and spacious, the backyard was treeless and fenced in. It lacked the isolation we needed, for my backyard offered us almost an acre of removal—of detachment, and no lattice fences, or white picket suburbanization, and inside us both—was this irrepressibly overgrowing like a forest.
The lopsided two-by-fours in the trunk of tree had to be replaced. These planks were the stepladders, but the wood was cracking in half. Not to add, too much moisture and not enough sun, left most things soggy, as if the wood grew a thick wet black skin. The constant swelling made it spongy and ineffective for building. It was dangerous—dangerous, not because we intelligently anticipated a problem and solved it—dangerous because of cause and effect. As the wood became damp, a nail protruded and Kevin cut his shin on the nail head. This was our learning, result and consequence—no Scientific Method or the wise advice from our omniscient parents playing load on the speakers of our subconscious—learning was always an experience.
Kevin and I hid in the brush adjacent to an under construction home. Scratching the pine off our ankles, we looked both ways—our heads were periscopes toggling side to side, checking the Tyverk house-wrap, and the turned-up ground, and for the reflective vests, and sometime after four, when the men clocked-out, and they collected exterior materials, and dropped toolsets in truck beds, and pilled in truck cabs, and came out the same tire treads they came in on, we waited till the coast were clear—mini vans garaged, dads not home, and we crossed that street, like the Atlantic—justifiably, like our early countrymen—Manifest Destiny, divine conquering, and everything American.
Fortunately for us, the lockboxes hadn’t been installed yet, and neither was the deadbolt lock, only the doorknobs with keyed locks. So I wiggled and wormed my skinny wrist into the deadbolt hole and unlocked the door from the inside out. Opening the door, clouds of sawdust traced the sun’s slow cast across the soon-to-be floor, and it was silent. And maybe the fresh nails were still vibrating. And there were snaked-shaped outlines from the extension cords, and the tops of coffee cups littered, and stacks of particulate masks, and fiberglass insulations like giant cotton candy spindles—and then there was us, larcenist, leaving our Airwalk footprints in the taupe-colored dust.
The only thing keeping us from falling to our untimely deaths through the framing wood and into the foundation of the home, were these thin slabs of plywood that dimpled as we walked. They sat horizontally over beam joists, and every step was measured by the foot before it—heel to toe—heel to toe, almost counting in between breaths. We tried to map out our course on the beams themselves. And at some point, there should have been fear—lightness of the stomach, a cold sweat, or a misguided step—some uncertainty, but we were bandits with such suavity, and calculation—and bravado—and preciseness that lit the way like flashlight headbands. Look over there and can we carry that—without saying a word, we sized up the building-supplies with one quick glance, we knew what we could take, what we needed, and if we could carry it back home. And maybe we were always this one step away from descending into a world below ours—into these basements of depravity.
Like vagabonds, we stumbled out, weary-eyed, sun-stung, as if we had just woken up there—scratching out fiberglass and coughing up sawdust. Piling planks between ear and shoulder, stuffing pockets—front and back, with collated coils of framing nails—our necks red, splintered, and hot—our legs abraded and hustling from the scene of the crime. This wasn’t a matter of excitement and danger—for it was about exploring and creating, and making our own by the opportunistic taking—the pirating of life, whenever we could—with whatever we could.
We were soaked and brined, like the sun had just spit us out—these two boys moving through the neighborhood as if we were fugitives—assessing, waiting for cars to pass, ducking and using ferns for cover. The wood and nails felt sharper with more irritancy, and our skin chafed itself with maybe blood and maybe sweat, but we made it back to my house, and were on the way to the deep thicket of pines and fetterbush. And then we heard it—sirens like birds above the tops of trees, and the whirling flashes that seemed to dye everything purple, as if it were all hit with a splatter of paint. Our stomachs dropped, and so did our supplies.
Something in the soil pulled us closer, like it already knew—and wanted us safe, and had all these millipede arms drawing us in—sinking past the sand and the sediment and probably fossils of some old boys who hid there just the same. These moments felt scripted, like a reenactment of a Western robbery—two bandits, a bag of gold notes, and the law on our tails—I could draw my eyes and my hat down real low, and say something smooth, like--you and whose army—and then the patrol car drove by and we held our breath and counted the seconds. Our bodies might have twined and rooted and became part of the earth, and under our arms and between our legs—moss might have formed, and our eyes could have been green and leafy and even stemmed out the brush of our faces, and while our bones grew rings and our skin became bark—the fear in a our bellies felt magnificent.