Those points are supposed to go down toward the ground.
The house in which I grew up had aluminum downspouts that descended from our gutters and curved away from the foundation atop beveled cinder block. They channeled rainwater adequately, but they were prone to rust and had sharp edges at their openings. Not much of a hazard for most people, but if you were an eight-year-old boy running around the perimeter of your house at top speed, they could be dangerous. I was surprised to discover this fact one summer afternoon, and I was further stunned when my bloody leg failed to elicit any sympathy from my mother but instead earned me a reprimand.
“Well, if you hadn’t been running around the house instead of watching where you’re going, this wouldn’t have happened,” I recall my mother scolding me as she tended to my injury. She probably tempered her criticism with compassion, but only her cool rebuke remained in my memory. Somewhere among my developing dendrites and synapses I stowed away the lone nugget of wisdom I managed to cull from the experience: If you’re hurt, don’t tell Mom. It was a maxim that was destined to lead me astray.
Some time later I was idling away the long hours of another summer afternoon a few doors down in the back yard of a friend. My memory has not preserved precisely what we were up to that day, but it probably involved yet another imaginative adventure on the unanchored swingset that would tilt ominously whenever we dared to swing simultaneously at top speed. We could see a few unweathered inches of post rising from the ground as we held our legs tucked underneath our seats at the start of each arc. Rushing forward, we would feel the opposite posts tug at the ground behind us when we reached maximum altitude, and in my mind I could see the whole rickety shebang careening forward to hurtle us toward our premature deaths. Gosh, it was fun.
Novelty intruded upon this particular episode of our perilous routine in the form of a summons from an adjoining yard. It was the call of a stranger, a girl standing on the other side of a chain-link fence that separated my friend’s back yard from that of the house on the opposite side of the block. In all of our many hours of playtime upon the swingset, I had never seen anyone emerge from that house. My friend didn’t seem to be any more acquainted with her than I was.
“Look at this,” she beckoned, holding aloft a strange leather object with dangling beads that looked as though it might have been the end product of a summer camp craft project. She was oddly devoid of enthusiasm and seemed to take no pride in the item. “You can have it. Here.”
I glanced at my friend and looked back at the girl, whom I realized was gesturing toward me. I felt an undefinable discomfort that pressured me to respond, a social obligation of sorts. In retrospect, I wish that I had possessed the maturity to simply thank her for her kindness and politely decline, as I truly had no desire to possess the rather unattractive ornament she was offering. This simply did not occur to me, however. It seemed like the friendly thing to do was simply to accept her gift, which I could discard later. I gallantly approached the fence to appease her.
There was a border of tall shrubs that ran along the opposite side of the fence, thick enough that it prevented us from standing any closer than several feet away. Our small arms could not reach across it easily. Thus, in order to effect the transaction, it became clear to me that I would have to give myself a boost by wedging the toe of my tennis shoe into one of the chain links and pulling myself up. A moment later, I was stretching across the hedge, and the girl placed her bizarre relic in my grasp.
The incident was over in seconds and would have merited no space in my long-term memory were it not for the confluence of my clumsiness and the fence installer’s carelessness. As I retreated from my outstretched position, my shoe slipped from its hold, and I made a short but sudden descent upon the top of the fence. In most cases, this would have resulted in no greater harm than a tender bruise, but I had fallen on a fence that had been installed upside-down. The sharp metal twin prongs that would customarily fix the netting to the ground instead pointed upward along the top rail. One of them punctured my left side, just below the armpit.
I knew instantly that I was hurt and reflexively clamped my arm against the wound. A searing pain began to shoot through my side, but neither my friend nor the stranger seemed to notice the severity of my injury. I must have skewered myself gracefully somehow. But one thing was immediately obvious to me: I had certainly hurt myself stupidly. This was far worse than absentmindedly catching my leg on a downspout while running around the house. Mom would be furious.
“What were you thinking?” I imagined her interrogating me. “Didn’t I tell you that you are not allowed to climb fences? What are you doing accepting gifts from strangers? Just look at the hole in your shirt! That’s it! No more foolishness! You are grounded for the rest of the week!” The worst possible disciplinary consequences began to sprout in the fertile soil of my paranoia. If you’re hurt, I remembered, don’t tell Mom. But this was serious! And then I saw my way out – I would tell Dad instead. Dad would understand.
I muttered a badly improvised lie about suddenly realizing I had been out playing longer than I was allowed, ran from the back yard and frantically pedaled my Big Wheel home. Bounding up the porch and entering the living room, I startled my grandmother by loudly demanding to know the whereabouts of my father. The news I received was devastating: he was out fishing at the reservoir and was not expected to return for at least another hour. I sank down in a chair, my left arm pressed stiffly against my side, and mulled over my options. There was only one, really. I would just have to wait until Dad got home.
We made a peculiar tableau, Grandma and me. She sat quietly in her usual spot watching yet another game show and casting an occasional suspicious glance at me. It was, after all, an oddity for me to accompany her in this fashion, yet there I was, a solemn model of rigidity staring with grim fascination at Paul Lynde camping it up on Hollywood Squares. My attentiveness did not diminish during the commercial breaks, determined as I was to remain in a catatonic state until my father returned. I deftly swatted away her feeble inquiries concerning my well-being.
“Is there something wrong?” Grandma ventured with narrowed eyes.
“Nope!” I countered as nonchalantly as I could manage. I would not crack under pressure.
Several minutes passed before Grandma spoke again. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yes!” I hissed distractedly, furrowing my brow as if all this chit-chat might make us miss a priceless bon mot from the center square.
A further silence ensued, and before Grandma could formulate another question, Mom entered the room. She stopped at the sight of her mother and son transfixed before the television. I flattened my arms against my torso and tried to ignore her skeptical gaze. Just keep looking at the TV, I told myself, Dad is bound to come home any minute.
“Nothing,” I croaked, unnerved by Mom’s extraordinary perception. I could feel my resolve quivering.
“C’mon,” she prodded. She sat down on the couch and eyed me with an intensity as strong as the steely gaze that I kept concentrated on the television. “When you’re sitting in the living room watching game shows with Grandma, there’s something wrong. Out with it.”
“I think game shows are interesting.” It was a valiant last effort, but Mom was not to be deterred. She demanded an honest explanation. I bit my lip and tried to resist, but it was no use. I had to come clean. “Well,” I sniffed, “I got this cut.”
With that, I stood up and lifted my numb arm above my head. Mom blanched at the sight of my blood-soaked shirt. “What did you do?!” her voice rose, and I dizzily tried to find the right words.
“I…I fell on these spikes on the top of the fence-”
“Fell on these spikes?!” She whisked me into the bathroom and opened my shirt, dabbing at my side rapidly with a warm washcloth until she located the wound. Her muffled gasp conveyed to me a mixture of shock, concern, and great annoyance.
“I’m sorry, Mom!” I pleaded. “Is it bad?”
My mother was no doubt trying to keep her own composure as she replied, “Well, you’ll probably need stitches!” Surely she foresaw a trip to the emergency room, possibly the necessity of a tetanus shot, and most likely she feared that there could be even more to my injury than her cursory examination had revealed. But all I heard was the unfamiliar word stitches. It sounded awful.
“Sss…ssstiches?” I trembled, my eyes wide with rapidly increasing anxiety. With no further clues as to the meaning of the word and its implication for my prognosis, I assumed the worst and began to panic. I envisioned a team of surgeons laboring over my battered body as they attempted to save my life by employing some extremely painful procedure. My last reserves of rationality drained like the blood from my paling face, and I cried as I had never cried before.
Perhaps a hypnotist could extract from my mind the repressed memories of what followed, but my brain has seen fit to shut the door of recollection at this moment of catharsis. I did indeed have to get sewn up at the emergency room, but I do not remember the experience except for the fact that it was nowhere near as awful as I had feared. And therein was the one and only good thing to come out of our traumatic ordeal: practical knowledge about the wisdom of staying calm and the dangerous futility of panic. It was a lesson that I would not soon forget.
Not for a few years, anyway, until the time I was leaning out the back of our station wagon as the tailgate door swung shut, causing the window to shatter against my head. But that’s another story…