One night now long ago, I fell into a profound slumber.
The mists of my deepening sleep give way to the surreal clarity of dreaming. I see the maple trees which lined and canopied the street where I grew up. The houses, the street and the trees, in memory far larger, I suspect, than in fact.
For a moment, I am again, a boy.
I feel almost certain that in my childhood, I would lie in bed at the very beginning of day, for the most part done with sleep, but still drowsy; and some part of me still recalls the shrill tinkling of glass on the porch at dawn as the milkman would remove empties and leave full quarts of milk.
Our neighborhood would not permit the milk to be left on the porch. The long-suffering milkman was constrained to bend down and open a small aluminum door – usually located next to the front door – and set the milk inside.
The sleepy inhabitant of the home would come trance-like down the stairs in the morning to find his milk within this door, inside his home, much as mail could be found inside the house, below the slot in the door.
Our neighbor was the redoubtable Mr. Porter, the brooding and irascible keeper of the realm next door. He had established his milk door at the rear of his home for reasons which, then as now, elude me. The door led to a small, enclosed porch.
Sometimes I would see him scowl at me as he shuffled bent-backed and mean-spirited down his driveway. Were he still alive, I am convinced he would’ve waxed ecstatic over the advent of tubal ligations. A curmudgeon’s dream: no children to up-set the balance of neighborhood tranquility.
Having said this of him, you will be better able to forgive my pre-occupation with entering his milk door.
During the day, I would interrupt my play and stare through the chain link fence, bewitched by that little door. I can hear it even now as it sang its siren song to me with a drum-like persistence, “What mysteries might await . . . come over and play, Lucky.”
I stood by that fence and wondered, innocently enough, if that door was large enough to accommodate say… one four-year-old boy. That challenge held me in a tight and unrelenting servitude.
Even at that, I might have never gotten into trouble. But… I had a friend named `Coddy’. He was the `Huck Finn’ of Myrtle Avenue and environs. Shorter than I, as memory serves, and slightly built; he was crowned blond, and possessed eyes which flashed a restless mischief. Coddy had an unerring instinct for trouble.
During an afternoon of play, Coddy and I were agreeably surprised to discover that, by persistent and focused exertions, the two of us were able to undo the gate which, until that time, had protected Mr. Porter’s hearth and home from the predations of four-year-old’s. It was then the pollen I had carried for several months – to enter Mr. Porter’s milkdoor – found good soil and sustenance in Coddy’s plans for the day.
The reaching and entering of that little door was achieved with a disappointing amount of strain and contortion. We struggled madly to be the first to crawl inside. Soon, we found ourselves within stifling conspiratorial giggles behind very dirty palms.
The floor of the porch had been recently painted. Very recently painted. In fact, to pin the issue down without ambiguity, the floor was still wet. Coddy and I encountered this unexpected good fortune with a commendable poise. Imagine our additional delight, if you will, at finding a half-gallon of this self-same black paint in an open pail.
It is instructive to recall that as children we know, without knowing that we know, of the purposes and intentions of fate. When fate presents you with an open can of paint – and you are four years old – it is not a coincidence, it is a sign; and the meaning of this sign is clear and undistorted.
I learned a lot that day; I learned to look before you leap; never to play on a wet floor. and I learned that the new to me and sticky compound known as creosote . . . burns.
In due course, Coddy and I, helpless to deny the forces of destiny, were covered black. I have since wondered, and never received satisfactory response, why anyone would paint an indoor porch floor with creosote.
After fifteen minutes or so, Coddy and I were alarmed to discover that creosote does indeed burn. As time went on we apprehended, simultaneously, that the longer creosote stays on the skin, the more it burns. Our exit from that porch was achieved with considerably more alacrity and notably less precision than our entrance.
It was probably in the process of tearing off all of our clothes, including shoes and socks, that we uncovered the happy fact that the breeze eased the burning.
Question: How does one create a breeze? By running.
Now, if all of the backyards are fenced and you want to run without being interrupted, where do you run? Why on the sidewalk, silly! Even a child knows that!
A neighbor visiting my mother turned from our front window thoughtfully. Her look said her eyes had reported the impossible. She broached the subject diplomatically.
“Ellie, I think Lucky and his friend just went running down the street.”
“Couldn’t be. He’s in the back yard,” Mom responded with confident inattention, focused on her knitting. But then, responsive as the best of mothers are to the gentle prickings of doubt, she made further inquiry. “What was he wearing?”
“Well, I’’m not wearing my glasses, but I didn’t notice any clothes.”
As the memory trails off, mercifully having failed to record whatever punishment must have certainly befallen me, I see two little black and white perpetrators, thumping clumsily down the sidewalk and a distraught but determined young mother in dedicated pursuit.
If milk doors still existed, who knows? Once again, I might yet yield to the irresistible compulsion to wriggle through one.
But I’m betting I would know what better to do (and not to) on the other side.