Make-believe among the docks

As they played house in an old dumpster, their worlds of imagination merged for a day.

John Bulmer
Row houses in Manchester, England, 1977.

My grandmother used to live in a duplex with factory views from most of its windows, the last in what had once been a long row of identical houses.

My grandmother would sit on the front porch on the aluminum lounger with hard vinyl cushions and leaf through a copy of "True Confessions."

(Years later, when I came of age, I would sneak copies of the magazine home with me and read stories out loud to my friends at our fort in the woods near the old railroad trestle half a mile down from the factory, the dam, and the lake.)

But that Sunday, we were sitting together on the porch. The factory was quiet because it was the only day the injection-molding machines were still. In a few years, a recession and ecological consciousness would shut them down for good.

I asked my grandmom if I could go out and play. She told me to stay away from the trailers at the loading docks. I told her I would.

I headed over to where the trucks no longer docked. The warehouse was still used, but the trucks never went any farther than dock No. 15. Docks 16 through 21 – no numbers were there, but their image was clear where the sun had bleach-washed the warehouse around them – had been retired one by one as the once-thriving plastics manufacturing company gradually succumbed to a weakening economy.

The warehouse originally had only 10 docks, and even these were only cut into the existing warehouse after the conversion from textiles to plastics. The late 1950s, with its burgeoning plastic attitude and artificial destinations, necessitated the addition of 11 more docks. The border between the original and the addition was obvious. The early structure was old brick, rusted red, and had been a cotton mill from the late 1800s through the late 1940s. The new was institutional green sheet metal – faded.

At the end of the last loading dock was a large, empty, dark-green dumpster that hadn't been used for years, perhaps even as long as a generation. As a child, I often wandered by myself around back by this warehouse. The greatest things to go in a kid's pocket could be found there – all sorts of old rusted tools, unidentifiable metal objects, oversized octagonal nuts that only needed a good kick in the dirt to uncover. Horseshoes were plentiful. I once collected 15 at one excavation and went door to door selling them as cherished relics of our town. I sold only two – to Dinggy, the neighborhood granny who lived across the street from my family; of course, she would have bought used tea bags from any of us kids if we had asked her to.

That's where I saw Sarah, near the dumpster. I knew her from school, but we were never really friends. She was one of the kids who lived on a street called Bed Bug Row, a place known for its run-down homes. Kids from Bed Bug Row always seemed to wear the same clothes with a stain or two on them. Kids from Bed Bug Row hung out with other kids from Bed Bug Row. I hadn't realized that that street was close to my grandmother's house. The houses of Bed Bug Row were also remnants of the mill era.

Sarah was exploring. She told me of all the things she had found, especially back where the grass was brown and high and grew through the wide cracks in the concrete slab where another ancient building once stood. I knew that area well but was not very interested in what I could find there: old picture frames, remnants of carpet, rolls of fabric. I was far more interested in the archaeological digs into generations of dirt.

I showed Sarah that I used the empty, dark-green dumpster as a repository. Together we furnished it with a big spool that once wound cable wire to use as a table and small wooden crates to use as chairs. Sarah hung makeshift curtains where she imagined a window ought to be. I ran back to my grandmom's and took some saltines, slices of prewrapped American cheese, an orange, and two colas.

Sarah and I were husband and wife for the rest of that day. We were openly affectionate, calling each other "dear," "darling," and "honey." We held hands, hugged often, caressed, even kissed. Sarah sat on my lap as I told her about my day at work and how tired I was. She put dinner on the table – cheese on saltines, the orange, and the two colas.

After dinner we took a walk holding hands. When we returned "home," we went to bed, lying down on a carpet remnant Sarah had found. We lay there, holding each other for a long time. By the time it was morning in our world, it was getting late in the real one, and I had to get back to my grandmom's because my parents would be there to pick me up. We kissed goodbye and held each other tightly. She gave me another kiss, on my chin. I softly kissed her forehead.

Monday at school neither of us acknowledged the other nor did I ever tell anyone about our "home." Although I frequented our place for another year or so, I never ran into Sarah there again.

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