The widening alley

FOR everyone, I think, there is a neighborhood, a landscape, in their early days, that they remember with nostalgia. It takes only a color, or scent, or sound in later days, a beckoning from the past, to bring on that simultaneous reminiscence and discovery. For me such a place was an old part of town where my parents lived when I was a very small boy. First, there was the house they rented, a two-story, wood-frame house that sat on a corner. Houses on corners sometimes have a certain worn but determined look, as if neither time nor vulnerability is going to get the better of them, and this one was no exception. Dust from a dirt alley behind the house blew on it almost constantly, and yet its bright green paint always gleamed through the dismalest places. And it was a safe house, too. I used to walk around and around it, running my fingers along the wood, talking to the house as if it were my playmate, and miraculously never getting a splinter. I made up songs and sang them to the mites, beetles, moths, and assorted skittery bugs that lived in the cracks.

Even more fascinating was the alley behind the house. On one side of it were wooden garages standing in sheer stubborn endurance of rusty nails and sun-peeled boards. They'd seen bad times and good times, and were homes not only to cars but also to things people had no use for anymore but didn't have the heart to throw away. Old bedsprings, broken tools, buckets that leaked, and, in one, a bird cage with the door wide open, the song vanished.

Tomorrow lay hidden somewhere over the horizon, but here was all of yesterday to see.

Along the other side of the alley ran backyard fences of different heights. Some, child-high like me, I could go up on my tiptoes and peer over; others, too tall, had holes I could peek through.

I saw houses with so many windows they looked like big pieces of Swiss cheese. I saw little houses that cast charcoal shadows. They looked as if they'd been sketched by a child learning how to draw. I saw houses white as milk, or shiny-brown like chestnuts. Houses with tall chimneys out of which puffed smoke in the shape of men's and women's hats; up and up into the sky they all floated. In my dreams at night I saw stars with smoky hats on.

In some of the backyards the grass had grown so high it touched the lower branches of trees. Some trees shook a constant laughter out of their leaves. My favorite tree was a little, thin-twigged willow that stood all by itself in a corner. On wet and windy days it would swish its frail branches back and forth, back and forth, looking so very much like a child wiping his runny nose with the back of his hand, trying to cheer up.

When it rained, the alley went at first all pitted with drops, then turned muddy, even oozy-muddy. I loved to go wading in the mud in my bare feet, wiggling my toes with delight and pretending I was at a fancy seashore.

AFTER the rain there were puddles, little ones and big ones. Once, I crouched for a long time beside a little puddle, studying my reflected face, especially my eyes. They were big, dark eyes alert with curiosity, eyes that could shut as tight in shyness as in sleep; eyes that could glow with such warmth when I listened to my elders talk, I felt my elders could even warm their hands there if they wanted to, as at a friendly fire.

And I wondered what I would look like when I grew up, what changes, subtle and otherwise, awaited me. On my mother's dressing table in our house were photographs of herself and my father as they were then, and photographs of themselves when they were children. The resemblance of older to younger was there, but it was like a sunbeam that you run after and you catch it in your hands, and then when you open them, it is gone. Or rather, it was as if the grown-up faces were playing a game of hide-and-seek with the child faces, and the child faces would always be hiding, and the grown-up faces always seeking.

I remembered that when I'd asked my parents what was the best thing about growing up, getting older, they'd answered, ``Your soul gets bigger and bigger.'' That had sounded like a prayer to me, and there, in my alley, I prayed it.

The alley went on for several blocks, and if you followed it all the way you came out at an old wooden bridge. From there I could see the long, clear line of the horizon, where the earth and the sky seemed to meet and whisper something I wished I could overhear.

The bridge itself led into the Union Pacific railroad yard. My parents had forbidden me ever to go into the yard, what with stupendous locomotives always coming and going, but I loved to stand on the bridge and watch.

There, only a little way from where I peeked through fences and said a prayer by a puddle, men and machines toiled on; tracks groaned, turntables turned, and existence in all its heaviness and heroism lifted itself into the day. I was between worlds on that bridge, the world of play and the world of work, childhood, and life.

And perhaps because even then I glimpsed the shortness of them both, always when I went back home down the alley, I ran.

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