As published in the Providence Journal, September 17, 2017.
Three brown-bag lunches sit on the kitchen counter, each one branded with my mother’s handwriting. My older brother, Rob, will take his to La Salle Academy where he is a freshman, while my younger brother, James, and I will carry ours to Robert F. Kennedy School. James is in first grade, I’m in sixth.
It’s Chris, my best friend, calling from the driveway on the side of our house. James and I jump up from the kitchen table.
“Don’t forget your lunches!” my mother says, stubbing out a Tareyton cigarette. A talk-show host chatters on the radio atop the refrigerator, but it’s Mom’s voice that registers with me. “Keep an eye on your brother,” she says in a tone that guarantees compliance. “I’ll be back from work when you guys get home.”
James and I bound into the crisp September air and start up River Avenue with Chris. We love walking to school. There are no parents, no teachers – just seven blocks of freedom along the tree-lined streets of Elmhurst.
“Want a Starburst?” Chris asks. My friend is easygoing, and mischievous in ways I envy. He’s also nice to James. My brother and I grab the soft candy chews from him and, in seconds, eradicate any good we might have done with our toothbrushes earlier that morning.
At Moorland Avenue, sharp barks turn our heads. It’s Killer, our name for the menacing German shepherd safely penned in the backyard of the Cape on the corner of Moorland and Rankin Avenue. Even though we are almost a block away, Killer is on his hind legs, pawing the air and barking at us ferociously. The heavy chain that tethers him to a clothesline pole is taut.
“I have dreams about that dog,” Chris says. “Bad dreams.”
Killer’s barking fades behind traffic noise as we continue up River Avenue. We check the English yew in front of a shingled double-decker. The previous fall, Chris planted an orange Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper deep in its branches.
“Still there,” he says with satisfaction. All is right with our world.
We reach Smith Street and have to wait for the stoplight to change. It’s a tricky three-way intersection, with Wabun Avenue complicating the automobile-and-pedestrian ballet. Years earlier, as a second grader, my brother Rob had run into the side of a moving station wagon here. When I asked him what happened next, he said the car kept going and so did he.
“I was late for school,” he said. “And I didn’t want Mom to find out.”
Chris, James, and I, safely through the Smith Street piece of the intersection, pop into Haskins Pharmacy. I dig three pennies from my pocket and slide them into the red gumball machine.
Back outside, we have to wait for the stoplight to change again, this time to get across River Avenue. Charlie, an old, one-eyed beagle, joins us on the corner. He belongs to Mr. Siravo, the fruit peddler who lives near Haskins. Charlie comes and goes as he pleases; his ability to navigate city traffic is a marvel to us.
“Hi, Charlie,” James says, and the graying dog gives my brother a sweet, one-eyed look, his tail wagging.
The light changes and Chris, James, and I cross, with Charlie in step. At Nelson Street playground, half a block from school, the three of us jump on the swings and swoop and soar until we can go no higher.
Riiinnngg! The first bell sounds. We run from the playground to the schoolyard. There’s still time for a race or two – down to the chain link fence and back. Go!
Riinng-riinng! It’s the final bell. Teachers appear, lines form, shoulders slump. Chris and James fall in with their classmates, I with mine.
In Miss MacDonald’s classroom, I see the day’s schedule written on the blackboard. One word stands out, like a gold star on a spelling paper: dismissal. It can’t come fast enough.
Seven blocks of freedom await us on the walk home.