The First Story I Ever Wrote
When I turned 15, I had a lot going on. Least, I thought so. Girls, academics, sports, hormones—and I had no idea what to do with any of that and I certainly didn’t know how to talk about it. I heard people say,‘Express yourself.’ I’d scratch my head and think, ‘Now, just how do you do that?’ For some reason—and to this day—I’m not really sure the reason—I sat down one night and wrote a story. On the surface, that story had nothing to do with what I was dealing with. I can’t point to any part of the story and say,‘Yep, that was it. That’s the thing that was bugging me.’ Maybe someday, somebody will psychoanalyze me and suggest an answer. I’m dubious. Anyway, that night started a process in me. Something I did most nights. That story, called ‘The Sandbox,’ became the first of several short stories of a collection I’ve long since called ‘River Road.’ (Stories from my childhood written between the ages of 15 and 25.) I thought maybe you’d like to see it. It follows this. One note: I first wrote this twenty-six years ago. My tendency now is to edit and rewrite to make it sound like me today. For the record, I’ve not done that. I made a few changes in my early twenties but, for the most part, you’re getting me as a teenager.
They were blue, faded, and splotched on the front with white paint. I had a couple of other colors, but for some reason I liked blue best. They were genuine, six-pocket camp shorts, complete with elastic waistband and stainless-steel knife-clip. The elastic band let you get past mom without a belt and wouldn’t let your crack show when you bent over. The stainless steel clip was good for swimming and, if mom had to hose you down after playing, it didn’t rust-stain your pants when you hung them on the fence. My knife didn’t hang on the clip because it was usually in my hand, whittling, or stuck in something—namely the side of the sandbox.
Thomas and I played in the sandbox most afternoons after school. He went to Chappell School and they let him out about an hour after me so I was always there before him. It was a pretty uppity school. They dropped him off in a small grey van, and made him wear some blue uniform that looked like a girl. He hated it too. Thomas was always smarter than me, but he agreed that my school was better because my big yellow bus could run-over his little grey van.
The sandbox was a big hole in my backyard filled with beach-white sand framed with red boards that you could sit on when mom wouldn’t let you get dirty—Sundays before church. The sand was big and grainy like the kind in the back of dumptrucks and it didn’t sift into your socks but would dump right out when you took your shoe off. Thomas didn’t wear camp shorts. He wore plain shorts with only two pockets and no clip. He had to wear a belt too, not because his crack showed but because he couldn’t get past his mom. Thomas didn’t have much of a crack. He was too skinny. And he never had a pocket knife either. He always wanted one but I think his parents were afraid he’d poke himself. Thomas wore big, thick, sit-on-proof glasses. Without them he didn’t see too well, but with them he could see a heck of a lot better than me.
I stayed over at his house all the time. Friday-night sleepovers were kind of routine. His mom would make us Spaghettios, we’d watch ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ from 8-9 p.m., and then’d we’d go spider-hunting. Spider-hunting was a local sport invented by Thomas. It caught on pretty quick but nobody could find spiders like Thomas. He’d hold that flashlight up around chest level and snoop around the backyard like he was looking for gold or a runaway hamster. Thomas usually found twenty to thirty spiders in an average night. I never found the first dang one. I did find a raccoon but never any spiders. He always said to look for two small blue eyes in the grass that were real close together. Sure enough anytime Thomas said he saw “eyes” we usually found a spider attached to them. Everytime we set up my orange tent in the back yard, we had routine a “spider-check.” It never turned up much, but made us sleep better. Spiders were amazing bugs and we were always glad they slept outisde.
Thomas would come to my house after school and we’d start digging to China. It was well known in our neighborhood that if you started digging and didn’t stop all day you’d reach China. I don’t know if I thought we’d really find that slant-eyed place Mrs. West told us about in Geography, or if that’s what throwing-up sounded like. Digging was hard work. Our shovels never hit any slant-eyed people in the feet, but we did get the bottom of the sandbox above our heads. The problem was that the hole was only big enough for one person. We climbed out with the use of footholes made in the walls of the sand—something we saw on ‘Jaques Cousteau.’ The troublesome part about this whole process was that by pushing down on the footholes more sand ended up in the bottom of the hole. Digging the hole deeper was an awfully slow process.
While Thomas huffed and puffed I played jacks with my pocket knife. Jacks is a game where you hurl your knife at anything you want. The number of blades that stuck depended on the knife you were throwing and how well you threw it. I straddled the red bench-seat of the sandbox and tried to stick the knife blades into the wood. I gave myself points depending upon which blades stuck. We kept score in the sand on the other side of the sandbox—opposite the war trench. While Thomas dug, I’d throw, and while I dug, he’d throw. Thomas didn’t score too well in jacks because he wasn’t too coordinated when it came to knife throwing. He could swim like a fish but give him a ball, or something where he had to use his hands, and he was pretty much useless.
The last time I saw Thomas he was on T.V. He was smiling, drippin wet, and didn’t have on his glasses. He was in Barcelona and when he got out of the water they put a gold medal around his neck. I never beat Thomas in a swimming race.
When we got tired of digging, we’d sit on the rails and run our toes through the sand. We talked mostly about two things: fishing or our balloon trip. Thomas was a great fisherman. We’d fish off his dock, wave at Roosevelt two docks down, and watch balloons float up and down the river on summer days. You see, Thomas and me, we wanted to go around the world. We planned it like Jaques did on T.V. We had a “First list” and a “Second list.” The First list was for food, candybars, and clothes, and the Second list was for equipment. The first thing written on the First list was six-pocket camp shorts. And the first thing written on the Second list was a Swiss Army Pocket knife. We knew that while traveling around the world in a balloon, we’d need a good knife—especially one with some tweezers, scissors, and a cork screw. We’d use the cork screw to open the Champagne as we crossed back over the Atlantic.
Only when mom yelled “Dinner!” did we ever think about time. She’d holler out the back screen door and a sad, gloomy feeling would ride through us—like the last day of summer vacation. Don’t get me wrong, we loved eating—especially dinner, but in order to get there we had to fill in our hole—dad’s orders. We’d start slow, tasting every handfull, then speed up—machine-gun style. When we finished, the sandbox looked the same as it had four hours ago. Except for a few handfulls worn on our faces and under our fingernails.
The only difference made in those four hours was that we had dug a hole, and at the bottom of that now black hole was something that was ours—a rock, golfball, stick, G.I.Joe, anything to prove we had been there. And as we lay awake at night, staring at the underside of the top bunk, we knew it was there—down in that dark cold sand. We’d dream about it. That was our bomb shelter, that was our Mission Impossible, and if anybody wanted it they would have to dig it up to get it.
That was our hole and we had dug it.
On one side of that sandbox was the hole, on the other was the day’s jack’s score, and in the middle, sweating, breathing hard, and clean, stood Thomas and Me. We never really remembered who won from day-to-day but just that we had done it—all by ourselves.
After a while I suppose this digging day-in and day-out got old, but in those few short weeks we learned more about ourselves than we learned in a whole year of school. That sandbox was ours, and within those boards we could dig wherever we wanted. We even dug tunnels underneath the perimeter—outside the sandbox. Inside that box there was no trash to take out, no bed to make, no lawn to mow, and we could get as dirty as we damn well pleased. We could put sand in our hair and rub it in. We could spit, cuss, and cut the cheese. Heck, we could even pee off the sides and spell our names in the grass.
Whatever it was we could do it.
That sandbox was our world and had it not been for growling stomachs, sunsets, and moms who loved us, we’d probably still be there. We weren’t out egging some lady’s house or stealing toilet paper from the Red lion to decorate the neighbor’s car. We weren’t crank calling old ladies and we weren’t stealing bubble gum from Peterson’s. We were living. We were trying. We were growing up. And we weren’t hurting anybody else in the process.
With every shovelfull we got better. We felt like we were worth something. All the ridicule from school, all the harsh words that parents never heard, all the fistfights we never won; they had no place in my sandbox. They stayed outside the red boards because that place was ours and, Me and Thomas, we owned it. They couldn’t hurt us in the sandbox. We may not have had much, but we had the sandbox and then and there, that was all we needed.
We climbed out, a little dirtier but proud of it, and made our way home. Soon, ‘growing up’ caught us and we found ourselves in honors classes, g.p.a.‘s, and Sports Illustrated, but at times I find myself wondering—wondering what I buried at the bottom of that hole. Its been some twenty years since I filled in that hole and now it’s covered by somebody’s rock garden. And the look-out tower which shaded our camp was struck by lightning and sawed down.
Now the ground is useless and that hole won’t ever be dug again, not because I couldn’t physically remove the sand late on some moonlit night, but whatever is down there I want to leave. It doesn’t know what I know now—it still thinks it can get to China. I want it to think that with one more shovelfull it can pop its head out, shake off the dirt, and be seen through the eyes of different people. There’s a piece of me at the bottom of that hole, and it can stay there. That piece is whole and has no stains - it’s pure. One day I’ll find it but I won’t have to dig to do so. I could spend the rest of my life digging, but I’d never strike the spot where I laid that rock to rest. Besides, by leaving it as it is, I may come closer to finding it. I know that’s deep, but Thomas and me, we weren’t digging into the past. We were digging a big, deep hole in the middle of my sandbox—all the way to China.