Dennis also lived across the street from us. He was four lots down from Tommy and two or three lots from the nudists. I say “lots” because there was an open lot on either side of Dennis’ house. One was big enough for another house; the other one was perhaps a bit too narrow to fit a home. At any rate, Dennis’ backyard also went back to the woods and the river. Shortly after moving in, Dennis’ dad began clearing out some of the trees and growth in the woods behind their house in an effort to expand the size of their yard.
Dennis was two years older than me. His family moved in shortly after we did. Our moms wasted no time becoming friendly with one another and would often visit each other to chat. His mom gave me an open invitation to come visit any time I liked. My mom, eager for me to get some friends close by, thought that sounded like a good idea.
Dennis’ mom loved me and had no problem telling everybody that she did. This included Dennis. She would fix me lunch and go on and on about what a good boy I was. She once asked Dennis why he couldn’t be a good boy like me. I beamed as she tousled my hair while I ate the bologna and cheese sandwich she had fixed for me. Dennis sat there and glowered at me.
After lunch we went to his room to play. As we played with his Hot Wheels he told me something I had never heard from anyone before. “I don’t like you.”
I was stunned. “What?” I asked.
He looked me right in the eye and said in a very casual tone, “I said ‘I don’t like you’.”
Dumbfounded, I asked why.
“Just because. There’s nothin’ to like about you, really.”
“O-o-okay,” I stammered. “I’ll go home then.”
“No! You don’t have to go,” he pleaded. “You can stick around and we can play some more.”
I stuck around for awhile longer like Dennis asked me to until it became too uncomfortable for my six-year old sensibilities. I stood up and walked out of Dennis’ room without telling him good-bye. His mom was still in the kitchen cleaning up from lunch, completely unaware of what had just happened. I let myself out as quietly as possible and walked home, still stunned by what just transpired.
A few days later I was outside playing when Dennis came over to see if he could join me. I couldn’t understand what the heck was going on. I still liked Dennis and wanted him to be my friend so I shrugged my shoulders and told him “Sure.” He acted like nothing had happened just a few days before. I thought maybe he had forgotten it and was back to liking me, so I continued to play. A few days later, though, Dennis reminded me that he disliked me. “I’d like to beat you up, but my mom would whip my butt.”
“Then why are you still playing with me?” I wanted to know.
“Because you’re the only kid around to play with.”
Strangely enough, this made some kind of weird sense to me. We kept on playing that day and would occasionally do so over the next few years. Time eventually seemed to soften Dennis’ attitude towards me. He never again mentioned his dislike for me, but never expressed that he liked me either. After Tommy’s family and a few other families moved into the neighborhood Dennis and I spent less time playing together. Every now and then he would ask me to come over to listen to a new record he bought or to watch TV. I’d go over but was constantly wary of what he would say or do. His mom asked me why I wasn’t coming around as often as I once did. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the reason why.
Over those few years, Dennis’ dad had been making good progress clearing out their backyard. He had created enough space to build a good-sized shed in the backyard and was working on cutting a path back into the woods. Dennis, Tommy, and the other boys and I would spend hours back there playing or talking about baseball, football, or who we thought were the prettiest girls at school. We also started cutting our own paths through the woods with the goal of connecting it to the one from Tommy’s house and extending it all the way down to the bridge.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One day in the summer of ’72 a few of us boys were riding our bikes up and down Sarasota Drive. We’d ride from Tommy’s house down to Nebo Road and back, occasionally riding up “The Hill” (as we called it) as far as the Johnson and Jones households, the one-time imaginary boundary between our part of the neighborhood and the part of the neighborhood where the “other kids” lived. We made several passes up and down the street before we stopped in the parking space in front of one of the duplexes to catch a rest and to watch the cars zip by on the now four-lane Nebo Road. Tommy got the bright idea to walk the short distance down to the new bridge to see what it was like.
The bridge had a narrow sidewalk on either side that was wide enough to accommodate one person. We started to cross the bridge on foot until I got scared. I wasn’t scared to cross the bridge, mind you. I was scared that my mom would find out what I was up to and give me hell for it. She never once accepted one of my “But so-and-so was did it first” excuses. She always gave me the classic parental response “Well, if so-and-so jumped off a cliff would you do that too?” Jumping off of a bridge seemed perilously close to jumping off of a cliff. I wasn’t about to find out what I would do if one of the guys tried to see how deep the river was half-way across the bridge, so I talked the other boys into turning around and heading back by convincing them that some of the “other kids” in the neighborhood might come along and steal our bikes. I was becoming a master at the art of the fib and was even able to rationalize it by telling myself that it could happen.
As we headed back to our bikes I noticed something of great interest to us all.
“Holy shit!” Swearing like an adult was another art that I was becoming adept at. I pointed off to our right and said, “Look! You can see the back of the nudists’ house!”
The other guys stopped dead in their tracks. “Daaaaamn.” We were all becoming quite good at it actually.
And there it was in all its glory. From our elevated view on the bridge we could see a small portion of the nudists’ house through the trees. We could make out what appeared to be a fence and the top of a sliding patio door. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. We stood there in awe.
With no further words needing to be said, we all ran back to our bikes and pedaled the short distance down to Dennis’ house. We ran back to the woods and to our path towards the bridge. Looking up through the thick brush and trees we could make out the white brick façade of the nudists’ house and part of what was a privacy fence. A new home construction next door to the nudists had been blocking our view while we were back in the woods behind Dennis’ house.
The wheels were now turning and we were all of one mind.