scholars and rogues

A Thing Of Beauty

by Terry Hargrove

We were depressed. It was Tuesday morning, the second day of summer vacation in 1965, and we were already being yelled at by The Dad. Out of boredom, we asked if we could mow the grass that morning, even though it didn’t need it. The Dad agreed, and we spent a whole half hour pushing our mower across the uneven ground. But the yard was big and the grass was thick, so we abandoned the job to play with our friends. At lunch, The Dad wasn’t impressed, and had laid it on us.

“I don’t know why he was so mad,” said Glenn. “We didn’t have to volunteer to cut the grass at all. So half the yard was cut and it was like he didn’t even appreciate it.”

“What is a halfast job anyway?” I asked.

“I think it means slow,” said Glenn. “You know, like half of a fast job. ‘Boys, if you do a halfast job, it’ll just work half way.’ What does that mean?”

“That’s not what he said,” added Wayne. “It wasn’t halfast, it was…”

“You guys wanted to work? Today?”

This exclamation came from Psycho Jeffrey, a new arrival to our neighborhood. He was observing to our conversation with a look of horror, as if we were describing the loss of something precious.

“It’s summer vacation,” he said. “We only have ten weeks and four days left until school starts. And you guys are working. No, worse than that, you’re asking for work! What’s wrong with you?”

“There’s nothing to do here,” replied Glenn. “Every day in summer it’s the same thing. Horseshoes, softball, basketball, tennis. We need something new.”

“Something exciting,” I added.

“Something dangerous,” said Jeffrey. “I’ve got just the thing. I saw this guy on TV last week, Evil or Wicked… Something. He jumped 30 cars on his motorcycle! 30 cars! I didn’t know you could do that for a living.”

“Isn’t he in the hospital now?” asked Wayne.

“A small price for glory,” said Jeffrey. “Now, we don’t have motorcycles, but I’ve got a bike, and Wayne here’s got his bike. And look at the driveway that goes down to the library. That’s steep. And look, there’s a mound right beside the library. I know you guys think it’s an Indian grave, which is stupid, but if we could go fast enough and hit that mound just right, we could fly! 20 feet at least. Let’s do it.”

A small crowd had gathered, the usual boys, and they were all excited by the prospect of flight and the inevitable crash that would follow, especially if somebody else was going to do it.

“Insane,” muttered Wayne. “You won’t get enough speed up to go more than a couple of feet.”

“But if we went to the top of Fifth Avenue,” suggested Jeffrey, “got somebody to watch for traffic so we could enter the driveway without slowing down, we could be doing 25 or 30 mph! What are we waiting for?”

“What are you waiting for? “ Glenn asked Wayne. So he and Jeffrey pushed off and peddled uphill.

“You know what would be great?” I said. “We could move the badminton nets to the back of the mound and it would catch them. Like a spider web. They’ve got those bases that are old tires filled with concrete.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Glenn.

“Yea, verily,” added the Comic Book Kid. He always talked like that.

We ran to move the net, no small feat since each base weighed 150 pounds. From Fifth Avenue, we could hear the sounds of the riders just taking off.

“Stretch it tight,” said Glenn. “If it’s too low, they might sail over it.”

“Here they come!”

Wayne and Jeffrey screeched into the library driveway and were slicing through the summer morning. They had their feet off the pedals now, since the peddles were spinning faster than feet could move. Wayne was in front, a dozen feet ahead of Jeffrey, and he’d lost his nerve. Wayne began a Doppler scream. We placed the second end of the net in its proper position.

“It’s a halfast job,” said Glenn.

“It’ll work half way,” I replied with a shiver. Then Wayne hit the mound screaming and flew. He was airborne. It was beautiful. And the net? Well, it caught the bike. Wayne detached and flipped end over end, hitting the ground with a violence that doomed him to forever labor on the offensive line of our football team. Then it was Jeffrey’s turn.

Jeffrey hit the mound at an incredible speed, but unlike Wayne, he didn’t take off. Jeffrey went up, straight up. I know I was a kid and memory has a way of exaggerating events, but I remember Jeffrey going up about half a mile. As he neared the end of his ascent, he disengaged from his bike, and at the apex of his flight, he was there above us like an angel. Then gravity took over, and when he landed it sounded like a pork roast dropped onto the floor of the grocery store. A dull thud he made, and the ground shook. But he was alive. And as he picked himself up from the ground, he was smiling. But Jeffrey had forgotten, as we all had, that his bike was still up there. It landed on the back of his head and smashed his face into the ground. When we rolled him over, he wasn’t smiling anymore, and two of his front teeth were missing.

Jeffrey staggered home, muttering incomprehensible and bloody expletives. His teeth were left stuck in a half-buried board, a sight I’ve tried hard to forget. Someone suggested that the teeth could be put back in if the dentist got them in time, so we dug it up and carried the board to Jeffrey’s house. His mom, thinking we had hit her son in the face with a 2X4, chased us around the yard until we retreated.

But by the next day, all was forgiven. Jeffrey’s dentist did indeed get the two teeth in time, and he wisely ignored Jeffrey’s pleas that the teeth be inserted, for esthetic reasons, sideways. His mouth was swollen, but he looked almost normal. For the rest of the week, he described to weariness the tale of his flight, and the awesome feeling of freedom. It was beautiful.

But the rest of us couldn’t talk about it without feeling squeamish. Those two bloody teeth made a grin on the ground, the solid and unyielding ground that had always been and would always be our master. The Comic Book Kid described it best, and I think Evil Knievel would agree with him.

“A thing of beauty,” he said, “is a pain forever.”

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4 replies »

  1. Never mind the effect that reading this has – that is to say, it has me crying on my keyboard. Besides that, this is such a marvelous bit of writing, of pacing, of building. If I ever teach another writing workshop, I’m using this along with a couple Twain pieces I’m fond of.