‑ Those inflatable rubber balls, the rubber feeling very thin over the hollow, air filled core. Although when the ball hits you, it stings. It can sting. The surface of these balls, the rubber rind, is always dented. Not smooth, but always a little pitted. Pebbly. You never saw this type of ball outside of school unless someone stole one. And then everybody would know that this person stole this ball, because it was so distinctive, so it wasn't a great thing to steal, in terms of other great things you could steal, like magazines from stores or the little knicknacks, batteries and disposable razors and such, that they always have hanging up at the checkout counter, or (like your friend Eric's sister, Brenda, did) a necklace from someone you were babysitting for. Of course, Eric's sister wasn't prudent in committing the last mentioned bit of larceny, because it didn't take a genius to connect Brenda babysitting last night with the necklace no longer glittering whereever it had been glittering this morning. The lack of necklace loomed large enough that the next day it was restored to Mrs. Phillips by Mr. Klimke, and Eric's sister got punished as she was always getting punished, by being grounded, and as always she glided out of her bedroom window like a little sorority cat burglar when her boyfriend Bobby drove up before the house in his big black Oldsmobile. Which Eric saw, of course, but even though he didn't like his sister he still didn't tell about. That is to his folks. To us he told about it. He always did tell us. Eric's sister never cultivated prudence, which was why, on the back of the Thrift Village there on Shallowcross road you could read that Brenda sucks donkey dicks (a dismissable slander) and that Brenda suck Bobby (grammatically doubtful, but accepted as gospel truth by the Gladstone seventh grade).
Kickball was the eminent ball of the playground. There was the softball, the basketball, the football, the baseball, and the program was that as we got older these would be our balls, and we would be sorted out according to what ball we were around most. (Oh, you forgot the bowling ball. But that was church. The Sunday School class, organised for a rainy Saturday excursion to the bowling alley and you watching the movie must have been made in the fifties, say, that guy looks funny, he looks like my Uncle, yeah my uncle always wears his undershirt and not a shirt over it and the movie voiceover telling Longstreet to take his steps up to the line like in the diagram step a and dot dot dot step b ahead of it and the arm back hey though these finger holes are too small and the after swing ‑ perfecto, man, but the ball I don't think the ball is right see it keeps curving like you know that means they must of unbalanced it by putting more weight on the right, man, and that isn't fair). But up until the sixth grade we were all sort of under the sign of the kickball. Liberte, egalite and fraternite, translated into elementary school terms, meant kickball. If Engels had been around we might have reminded him of that stage of primitive communism when everything is pretty groovy and even the girls get to play on the kickball teams, and then later on he might posit an Asiatic feudal stage in balldom, when the huge project was sorting out the bats and finding the things like petrified pillows for bases and then setting up our configurations and all of this division of labor tending to establish a definite tyranny and caste system, with the outfield getting to play the pariah parts. Any clumsy jerk could be stationed out there, and a lot of times they doubled or tripled up, so there are three right fielders at a time, two left fielders, and so on.
‑ I should try to be more conscientious of the limits of my world, or at least put in markers here, little surveyor's clues, even if the real limits are by their essence such that the slave to them cannot see them. The real limits are invisible and function invisibly, the real limits are self‑suppressing, the real limit is not the wall I touch but the interface between touch and wall. I am talking about the Gladstone Elementary School playground as if it were representative of all elementary school playgrounds, at least of a certain era, but I have to say my sample is limited. The only other playground I had any familiarity with is the Dallastown, Pennsylvania Elementary School playground. The Earlys moved to Gladstone, a suburb of Atlanta, when Street was nine, and Mom was happy about that cause she didn't like living up North so much and so she really got on Dad when he got the opportunity to come down here, Dad was doing a little of this and a little of that and had ended up there in Pennsylvania working on a newspaper for, Street was surprised to learn twenty years later talking to Dad on his porch and Dad reminiscing about that time, Dad making six thousand a year. And it was only four thousand more, the ad agency in Atlanta, but Mom kept pointing out it was a ground floor opportunity, look, honey, this article says Atlanta is the new New York, it is like the place to be. Honey. Like it was the opportunity of a lifetime. We could live near Grammy Shillowford. It is important to note that Longstreet had, by that time, incorporated playground in my paradigm of how to be ‑ yes, it was that stark, in those stark terms, that I thought, since I was a melancholic child ‑ and so my memories of kickball, which don't go back to Dallastown, where we played rather chaotic and un‑ball‑organized games, plug into my playground and classroom routine.
‑ In Dallastown you were beaten up on the playground. No, that is an exaggeration ‑ you were never physically beaten up, but you were the object of a certain amount of bullying. The bullying made an impression. For instance, there was this tyke Amazon who would come after you with her coat. She'd swing her coat so that the zipper would hit you. Of course, the zipper didn't hit you very often because you ran away. Now why she came after you with the coat in the first place, that has to do with the reasons children find the targets they do, and that has to do with miseries that are accumulated from elsewhere. From one's relationship to Mom and Dad ‑ standard answer. From the air, from God, the curses of angels or mad toothfairies, who knows, but the important thing is that children, with their back‑to‑the‑primates program of selecting out the weak, are going to find your weak spot.
Now, here is the thing: by the time you got to Gladstone you were not tormented, or not particularly, and certainly not by children of your own age. The reason for this is that you were a quick student, you liked to read, you impressed your teachers, and that gave you a certain amount of power, a power base, and it taught you how to use powerful allies to establish yourself. Not that you told, you didn't have to tell. It was that you could have told and didn't, actually, that made the difference. It is easy to caricature what I am talking about here, we have the vocabularies we inherited from childhood, we know about sneaks, queers, snitches, bookworms, bullies, but if I turn my back on that sad gallery and really think about it what impresses me is the diplomacy involved in classroom and playground survival, the ability to pick the right moments for remaining loyal and the right and legal moments for jettisoning one's allies, ah, the terrible beauty of Realpolitik in Kinderwelt, ah, the friends who turned out to be mistakes, or somehow became mistakes, not that at first they were mistakes but it was like the effect of some terrible hidden gene, you would be gone a summer from them and you'd come back and there your friend would be, a mistake, a pud, a sucker, coloring the very air around him with unhealthy vulnerability.
‑ So in Atlanta you have a system down, you have a power model that you have discovered, you are very quick to establish yourself. By the fifth grade you have established yourself on the playground. All of our models are so crude, it goes along with picking my nose or my butt and not worrying about it, it goes along with poking a straw in my nostril, it goes along with the thing Eric can do with his eye by putting his finger on the lid right at the corner and pulling it and like pulling his eye right up so that you only see the runny white of the eye, gross, this all goes along with the rawness of the assertions and surrenders on the playground. You have got to where you are in the middle of the kids who are selected for Jackson's team. Jackson Whittemore is the biggest kid in fifth grade and his team usually wins, so you are comfortable, this is the middle management level which a lot of these kids will go into, it starts from here.
‑ The kickballs come out of a closet. The janitor's closet. The doors of all the classrooms are wooden doors, easy doors to open, but the special doors in the school, the door to the office, the door to the bathroom, and the doors to the storerooms, they are all heavy metal doors. The janitor unlocks it selecting one key from a great clanking mass of them, which is attached by a chain to his belt. The janitor, the main janitor of the Gladstone Elementary School is an old black man (which means around fifty, to Street the thick, tufted gray hair signifies extreme age, and he has no eye for the damage and endurence of black skin, his measurements are all in white skin) who at some later date ‑ when Street is already in High School ‑ has to leave the school because he is caught trying to show a little girl pictures of naked women. God knows what is involved in such a complexly suggestive gesture. A teacher will get Grady to unlock the door and he'll be attended by volunteers. Maybe the teacher will go with Grady herself, but most of the time the teachers' point of view is that playground time means going to the teacher's lounge and taking a drag on a cigarette. So without Miss Petty or Beston or Muldive we would get nine balls, and sometimes they would be deflated and they are neat when they are like that because you can crevice the surface in this way or that way, and if you knock a dent in the ball and then knock another one in it the dents you form will interfere with each other, and that is endlessly fascinating for about two minutes. The other interesting thing about hitting the ball to obtain these dents is that it makes an interesting thump, and the other interesting thing about it is that when the ball is pumped up the dents will pop out, and that is good to watch. The ball looks like it is alive when this is happening, a strange seal or something, like it is eating, or at least the way things eat in cartoons where a lot of times what is eaten is swallowed whole, gulp, and it just stays the same inside, in fact if the thing eaten is the smart thing, like the Roadrunner, then it just lights a match and the thing eating it, like the Coyote, has to spit it out.
Okay, the balls come out of the storage closet and suddenly they are all over the playground. Little impish red balls, around which coalesce groups of boys and girls and teachers, the ones who aren't smoking in the lounge, which it must be that they switch on and off. Boys and girls, though: this is a teacher's words. I write this, I veer, I am in another perspective with the touch of a word. Kids. We were kids, I was a kid. We were big kids and little ones, we were girls only in a special tone (geerl. You're a geeerl ‑ a special taunt among the boys) and we were boys only in pathetic moments when we were licking the ass of some especially chosen adult, like going home with some story of malfeasance to a parent (he was a big boy ‑ he was a bigger boy ‑ phrases to evoke sympathy and, one hoped, rage ‑ maybe Daddy will go over there and beat up Mr. Whittemore!). We could all easily be pretty pathetic lackies, childhood being a wonderful discipline for later acts of supererogatory servility
‑ But normally we werent lackies ‑ we were, as I have tried to point out, diplomats, secretaries of state on delicate missions in perilous international situations.
‑ Shift a little, Street, shift the focus. Because I want this to be clear ‑ to actually describe the world of kickballs involves a lot of subtle stuff, it involves the whole metaphysics of description and depiction, that stitching between art and life.
‑ My dream is to describe myself into existence.
‑ There is always a word, but not simply a word: a charm. An open sesame, a one if by land and two if by sea. The lock is unlocked, the stone is lifted, the agents meet in the park at twelve and exchange briefcases. Yes, not simply a word, because its synonyms won't do, the place that it holds is uniquely its own, its function is to transform the situation, to make visible the threshhold between absense and appearance. Like a stage mindreader, your challenge is to pick out a few experiences from the nattering psychic throng, all those unnamed lifes, all those random vibes. Except here, in the palace of memory, those lifes are one life: your own. Your own, splintered into a thousand aspect
‑ There is another kickball game which comes later, comes in high school. It is called smear the queer, although like all these names there are official and unofficial titles and I'm pretty sure Coach Sick, who had a hard enough time saying sperm when the time came for him to say sperm when we got our sex education class from him, I'm pretty sure he didn't go around saying smear the queer, he probably said something more World War II like, like bombardment. Anyway, the game was played inside, in a room that had one wall open so you could lean out and look down on the gym floor and the girls and their little uniforms down there. I should explain that you are in a school district where they have compressed Junior High and High School, because other people I talk to, they say ninth grade was Junior High. Well, not for Street. Now, the girls were inside for the same reason we were: it was raining. But you didn't have much of a chance to look down like that, because smear the queer was a hyperbusy game. It was simple; two teams, lined up each before a wall, faceing each other. You could run out a certain distance, to a line running across the floor. You hurl a kickball right before the line. If it hit some boy, that boy was out. The tempo of the game was different from the kickball games you played at Gladstone . Those earlier games were sort of slow fusion jazz, a lot of riffs of inactivity ‑ retrieving the ball, watching the pitcher pitch it, the exchange between catcher and pitcher, neither of whom was better than anybody else at catching the ball, since to catch the ball you had to have a developed sense of speed and the curves that the ball would take and we were all a little primitive about that. Most of the time when the kicker did hit it the ball was foul, and somebody had to go retrieve it, and even when he did kick it and it was legal it usually didn't have to involve you. Mostly you could confine your involvement to yelling, maybe a little sympathetic movement towards the part of the field where something was going on. But in smear the queer, Coach Sick kept tossing in kickballs, and since there wasn't any set time for anybody to throw a ball balls were constantly in the air, so you could be dodging one and be hit by another.
‑ What do you think is going to happen? Do you think this is going to end with some more profound knowledge about the meaning of kickball? Do you think, yes you do think, that if you do it right, if you reach the magic moment of greatest specificity, the sound one day of the ball crunching on the sandy mixture they laid on top of the playground that you had to dig down a foot through before you reached clay, the ball bounding towards you segment by segment larger but not so that you had time to mark the stages of its fascinating trajectory, the ball actually heading in your direction and the screams and yells suddenly receding like the soundtrack going out, something screwed up with the friggin projector as Mr. Dupley in exasperation and shadow said one day, the ball almost in your hands and you squatting down in the catcher's squat for it, if you get this in the crosshairs, see it, know that posture and the waiting and how suddenly you don't want to be here, it will be like a kickball will drop out of the story, memory's relic take physical form, Lazarus as kickball come back from the dead come to tell you all I will tell you all.