This story has a turn in it. It may feel as odd as some of my other stories… but this is, unfortunately, a true story.
Behind the houses on Smallwood Street in west Baltimore, just like some sort of oasis in the center of our concrete existence of row houses and apartments, there was a meadow.
A cleared field where a collection of buildings used to be; there were still remnants of the old buildings left. A few cement blocks lay here and there, overgrown and decorated with assorted weeds of yellow bedstraw, Queen Ann lace and grass, and flowers and vines. There were just enough old door frames and partial staircases still standing to make it a perfect place for kids with lots of imagination to play. Wildflowers confirmed their appellation making it a euphoric vision of color. A wonderful surprise, as it suddenly appeared in the midst of the comparatively stark rise of the hind side of our neighborhood houses.
The accidental field lay enclosed by the backs of the houses of four streets– Smallwood Street on one side; Walbrook, Clifton and Bentalou Avenues on the other three. A short walk through the alley at the intersecting of any two of those would take you into the meadow. The gates of the backyards of any of the forty-some houses abutting the meadow gave entry too; and yet, the meadow managed to feel isolated and still with the surrounding edifices blocking the noise of traffic on the streets.
A steady, warm breeze whipped lightly around the meadow in springtime; lifting the varied fragrances of honeysuckle, wild spearmint, and lilac and laying it back down across the ground like a freshly snapped sheet.
Black bumblebees flew lazily back and forth among the mint, busy at their work like they always were until they were interrupted by some ten-year-old intent on capturing as many of them as he could in his jar. But that was only until he had so many of them and their brown bee relatives that it was no longer safe to open the lid in order to capture more.
Grasshoppers jumped and flitted here and there going about their business when not trying to escape some young entomologist. Their plight was never as easy as the bees. They made no menacing buzzing sound and had no stinger or any such thing to protect them or inflict pain against a predator. Their useless defense being only a small brown tobacco stain, they normally ended up smooshed, mutilated or just plain suffocated from the lack of holes punched into the tin top of their glass jar prison.
Rusted cans, broken bottles, brown twisted iron-piping protruding from a piece of cinder block presented some small hazards in the meadow. Sticks. Stones. The coiled innards of what was once a mattress– now adorned and overtaken with thick grass and a patch of giant sunflowers, presented more. We children expertly maneuvered those. The green, uncultivated, luxury of nature overtook any sense of the hazards.
There was enough grassy wonder in this one-eighth mile square patch of razed buildings to make it our meadow. We went into it and played for hours on end. We thought we’d captured all the bees and all the grasshoppers there ever were. And yet there was always more tomorrow.
I wasted away long summer hours in this lovely place; with bunches of friends or alone, it didn’t matter. I could play in the meadow from sun up to dusk. Occupied in my very active imagination, I filled the hours with make-believe tales on some days. On most others, I worked dutifully at hunting and catching insects. I concentrated on my work; standing as still as a seven year old could possibly stand while I eyed the whereabouts of the next specimen to occupy my glass jar.
I worked expertly with my insect catching tools. A small, eight ounce jar for the apprehension and a huge glass gallon jar for the collection. I had very diligently waited at the diner around the corner until that gallon jar was emptied of dill pickles. It took weeks for the waitress there to give in to my daily querying as to how much longer she thought it would be before I could get it. Finally, she just emptied what was left of the half-full gallon pickle jar into some other container, gave me the jar and begged me not to come back. I happily left, glass gallon jar in hand, still smelling heavily of dill pickle. I had to be very careful. It was almost as big as me and so fragile…but it was perfect to house my collection, especially after it had been thoroughly soaped and rinsed of the pickle smell by my big sister, and fitted with a little dirt and some grass to make it a more suitable home for my catch.
One beautiful, warm summer morning in the meadow as I went about my pleasure, I noticed a man. He came out of his kitchen door onto his back porch, which was situated atop a long, steeply-laid column of graying wooden steps. I only glanced up to see him, as I had been keenly sneaking up on a hovering black bumble bee. I missed it. That short glance away had given my prey a chance to escape. I let out the breath I had been holding and stood upright again. This time I looked up at the man. He waved a cheery hello to me. I smiled and waved back, and he turned back into his house.
I decided to take a break from my hunting and sat down on a rocky, bee-less patch of ground. I sat worrying the bees in my catcher jar; violently shaking the jar and making them so angry that they vowed to get out somehow and pay me back as soon as it was bee-ly possible. I thought it was just about time to transfer my catch into the big jar and started to rise when he caught my eye again. The man had returned to his door. He didn’t step out onto the porch as before. But he stood there and stared at me very deliberately. I stared back and started to smile at him again. I noticed he had changed his clothing. Before, he had been wearing a shirt and pants and belt. Funny, I thought, now he was wearing a robe of some sort. It must have been only seconds, but it seemed the man and I held our gaze for a long minute. And then he very casually untied the belt of his robe and slowly opened it wide.
I didn’t move an inch. I sat there and stared at him. I didn’t feel startled or afraid or anything, except absolutely curious. He was completely naked. He stood there motionless and expressionless, just looking at me. I took in the entire picture of his body; his slightly balding head of shiny, black hair; his pencil-thin mustache; his yellow-colored skin– his complete lack of genitalia.
Now I moved. But only my head tilted slightly to one side in wonder. The man closed his robe just as slowly as he had opened it and backed into his house, closing the door soundlessly. I sat there staring a few seconds more, when my buzzing, captured prisoners startled me back. I stood up and looked around. Had anyone else seen this? I slowly turned a full circle, glancing from door to door of the houses bordering the meadow. I checked, looking at every single one of the windows surrounding me, to see if anyone besides me had witnessed this strange thing. Not a soul. I left for home.
I told no one whom I should have about my experience. I sought out my best friend and shared it with her through nervous giggles. We hatched a plan to witness this phenomenon together.
The very next day my friend and I headed for the meadow. We were even armed with props to ensure we looked convincingly enough like two harmless insect hunters instead of two eager voyeurs. There was no fear between us. It never dawned on us that there was anything to fear. There was only the adventurous and innocently ignorant curiosity of youth. I had given the story to my friend in such a magnificent relay of sheer wonder and excitement that she just had to see it for herself. And I was just as eager to be her guide. And also… I wanted her to verify what I had not seen.
We made our entrance to the meadow that morning being very careful not to be conspicuous to our goal. We were so good at it that we even soon forgot the main reason we had come and began to be diverted by other things.
We climbed and jumped. We chased each other with huge grasshoppers in hand, threatening to apply their stinky tobacco to each other’s skin. We checked for the millionth time to see if we liked butter by holding up dandelions under each other’s chins. Then we finally settled down to some bug collecting, she at one side of the meadow and me on another, when I looked up and there he was.
He didn’t wave, but he looked at me. I turned to find my friend. I called to her without masking the fact that I wanted her to look this way. She looked right up at the man, and he turned back and into his house without any haste, but rather casually.
My friend and I looked at each other with eyes full of mischief; as if we were in some way guilty of something, but not willing to stop. We closed the gap between us and exchanged ideas. I confirmed that, indeed, it was the man and she expressed her doubt that I’d seen any of what I’d told her. But I did, I promised her.
We still had our heads together when he reappeared in his door. He was in his robe again. We looked up to see him there and grabbed for each other’s hand. I looked around the meadow to see if anyone else would witness what I was certain we were about to see.
Just as before, except now, before two little girls, the man untied the belt and pulled open his robe. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulder, and we stood there still, staring at his naked body like patrons in a museum admiring a painting. We said nothing.
When he had, apparently, had his fill of whatever he called what he was doing, he slowly closed his robe and turned away from us back into his house. We ran from the meadow.
We discussed the whole thing with our larger horde of friends. We went en masse to the meadow, but to no avail; it being impossible for all fifteen of us to act as though we weren’t there for the express purpose of seeing the naked man.
We all got together to discuss our seven, eight and nine-year-old theories on what had happened to me and my friend. And more importantly…the curious case of the missing penis.
We even identified the man as the father of one of our acquaintances; and somehow, by the grace of God, we did not turn that knowledge into the often heard of cruel jeers of mischievous children. Instead, we somehow managed to feel the pity and sorrow that normally escapes groups of children of our age, and said nothing; but kept it between us.
What relief we felt the day we saw an ambulance with flashing red lights in front of that little girl’s house. As we gathered around with the rest of the nosey spectators, the man emerged– from his front door this time– arms wrapped tight in a white contraption and being led away by two large men in hospital uniforms.
I returned to the meadow, day after day, whenever I pleased. Nothing about that absurdly odd series of events seemed to change a thing. It remained our own place to hunt insects, imagine great adventures and play until sundown. We weren’t any more cautious than we’d ever been. For me, the next worse thing that happened in our meadow…was the day I broke my glass gallon pickle jar…filled to capacity with bees.
– 30 –