When I was a child, we used to mark the end of winter when the snow finally left the sandbox. It was, in our minds, a moment as significant as the close of an epoch; those last drifts collapsed like mastodons, their carcasses going clear and dissolving in the sun. Come April, the sand always looked exhausted - pale, deflated silt brindled with leaf mold. Here and there lay those tenacious sidekicks of childhood, what we called "outside toys."
To an adult, these toys were indistinguishable from refuse. Stripped of wheels or limbs, their interiors harbored centipedes, sporophytes, and the gritty cinnamon of rust. Most had decomposed to the point of having shed their original identities, their truckhood or dollhood, to become as wild and anonymous as a puddle or stick. This is what made them special. To play with such eroded objects, a child had to refurbish them with an extra dose of imagination.
When the buds uncoiled and the spiky shadows under which we played grew fluted and soft, my father would hose out two garbage cans and drive to Big Sandy Creek. There, digging with a coal shovel that made a delicious "chiff, chiff" sound, he filled them with sand. We fingered it like connoisseurs. It was wonderful sand, with the sticky texture of brown sugar and a watery coolness that, for a few days, until we kneaded it out, smelled of river grass and turtles.
At home, he dumped it over the pale sand, leaving me and my best friend two damp, fresh mountains. True Midwesterners, we spread flat those peaks and built little towns with cafes and gas stations. Our entire populace shared a single name, My Guy, whose every move we solemnly narrated:
My Guy's digging a tunnel.
My Guy's building a river.
My Guy crashed into the wall and blew up.
THE sandbox we played in had no bottom. If you shoved aside the deep orange sand, and the anemic silt beneath that, you came upon the black rooty dirt of the planet. At that depth, the digging was messy and difficult, so we rarely went down so far. Still, it was a heady thing, to know that at any time we had access to the core. On windy afternoons, with the clouds drifting, we could feel the revolving depth of the world beneath us, and I pitied any kid made to sit above the ground in one of those canopied steel boxes with its matching pail, shovel, and sifter, and always in one ignored corner that effete ornament of a good time: a beach ball.
As the spring passed, our play grew more inventive and elaborate. When the sand lay in sloshy swells, My Guy went to sea in the husk of a tractor. Under the thunderheads of high summer, My Guy carefully gathered a splattering of dark coins. Come August, he baled crops of ragweed and goldenrod. He galloped to war and returned. Far into October we invented and built and triumphed.
On those chill evenings when our mothers called us in for homework, we only burrowed more intently into the sand and the final minutes remaining us. We wished that the world would somehow freeze in its requisite spin so that we, meanwhile, might go on with our play, filling the length of each moment with the breadth of our pleasure.
And come the silence between calls, it sometimes seemed that our wish had been granted. We held our breaths, poised for the exoneration of fate, while all around us the leaves continued spilling in their easy and inexorable way, lighting on the walls of our cities, on the outside toys, on our heads and backs.