Creative Nonfiction Friendship Funny

Staying with Grandma was the highlight of my summers back then. I didn’t really notice the lack of an indoor toilet or that you had to pump water into the kitchen sink instead of turning a knob. I didn’t care that the coal stove spewed enough heat up close to melt your fingernails while failing to warm drafty corners. I never felt deprived when Grandma and I did our laundry using an old ringer washer that billowed steam like monster-movie fog. I suppose I was a bit obtuse; blind to the agony of having only one black and white TV, unaware of the inconvenience of our phone party line, and clueless about the possibility of anyone needing to own more than one vehicle. I was not yet enchanted and fettered by the world of possessions for all I cared about was the glorious five acres of land where I could run free. Outside. There was no Outside at home during the school year, just a small empty yard with a sidewalk leading to the alley out back. Outside was the closest thing to paradise I could imagine, and I thought of it as my garden.

Lucky for me, Grandma was a big believer in Outside for kids. From the moment I awoke and ate breakfast, I was ushered Outside and expected to play until lunch, barring injury or illness. After lunch, I was once again shown the door and would not see inside again until darkness began to fall, and it was suppertime.

Outside. It was my garden, and I was its sole inhabitant, except for the animals and imaginary creatures I concocted in endless games of, “Let’s pretend…” My garden was adorned with an outhouse, a woodsy hollow (more properly pronounced ‘holler’) with a creek that only ran when rains were heavy, a rusty little play set, a large shed, grandma’s clothesline, a well and a tire rope swing. Yep, that about sums it up.

On any summer day, except during thunderstorms, I played at make-believe and created worlds. Sometimes I was an Olympian and my skin-the-cats on the playset evoked roars of appreciation from my crowd of spectators. But mostly it was pirates, cowboys, and gangsters joining me; snake-mean Billy-the-Kid and soft-spoken Jesse James were regulars in my garden. So were Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Matt Dillon and Paladin. From the fragile stick and leaf houses I built to make my Dodge City to the wild prairies I roamed to herd cattle with the crew from Rawhide, I drew from a cast of thousands to create my worlds.

One day in late August, I noticed there was another human being in my garden staring at me. I had observed him before in his little yard across the holler; he and his noisy siblings running around playing with various balls: footballs, basketballs, baseballs, volleyballs. In fact, I believed them all to be unhealthily obsessed with balls, completely lacking in imagination and boring. I dismissed them from my thoughts, preferring my Indians and pirates that had no interest in balls and like me, nary a sibling to their name.

The interloper gawked at me, and I glared back.

I gave him a look meant to wither and send him running back to his yard but instead, he asked, “What’s your name?”

I resented the intrusion but answered while continuing to crack my little pile of hickory nuts with Grampa’s ball-peen hammer.

“Mary.” I had no interest in his name, so I didn’t ask.

Happily, he volunteered, “My name’s Skip. What are you eating? My mom told me those are poisonous.”

The sun was shining on his towhead – we could have been siblings, so alike in coloring and size we were. But he was freckled, I was not. His eyes were sky-blue, mine were earth green. He smelled of parental cigarette smoke, the outdoors and wet dogs. Pretty sure I did not smell (at least that day), and I wrinkled up my nose at him.

I ate the meat of my hickories, chewing in exaggerated ecstasy while staring a deep challenge into his beady blue eyes.

“They are not poisonous to me. This is ambrosia – food of the gods. People like you are told it’s poisonous to keep you away from eating it.”

I ate some more and performed my Cleopatra luxuriating on her boat, enjoying grapes while floating down the Nile.

He looked me up and down. As my memory recalls we were between eight and ten years old – no more, no less. I recall enjoying his inspection, as it was a sort of circling, a deciding of who would be in charge. I was not physically imposing, called names like bean pole, ragamuffin, slip of a thing and wraith of a girl. But I had an ease with words and a fine memory for lines from books and movies as well as the ability to mimic facial expressions perfectly. I gave him my award-winning look of intimidation, channeling Cagney.

Skip didn’t react like one being intimidated. Instead, he sat down, snatched some of my hickories and popped them into his mouth. He chewed in delight and without fear, giving in easily to the temptation of forbidden fruit. It was such a gutsy move, not at all like Adam the milksop who just gave in, then blamed Eve. He ate with panache…and I…well I, suddenly liked him for it. Skip joined my float down the Nile as we took turns cracking shells and eating the food of the gods until he had to go home.

The next day, Skip brought over one of the siblings, Bill. Bill was a younger, carbon copy that so placidly and seamlessly joined our play, I barely noticed he was not one of my cast of thousands. In a few more days, two more siblings joined us: Marshall and Gary. Marshall came bearing a gift; it was a ball and he handed it to me like an offering.

Perhaps it was my infatuation with Skip, perhaps it was just a lark to change things up, but I played ball with the four of them and found that I liked it. What’s more, I was good at it. We created games and concocted strategies – Skip and I were always on the same team. We played ball as though we were waging war, celebrating victories and bemoaning defeats. A whole day was defined as good or bad by whether our team won or lost and like heathens round a bonfire we screamed, danced, pushed each other and rolled with laughter on the ground.

One day, Skip said, “Now Mary, I gotta tell you something. You are my girl, and these boys are my gang. Since you’re a girl, you probably don’t know the rules…since we let you play with us all the time…”

He leaned in conspiratorially, “We don’t usually let girls play with us – I’m going to let you in on the rules.”

“Rules?” I said nonplussed and pissed off at the statement “…let you play with us”.

“The first rule is nobody in the gang is allowed to cry in front of anyone.” He looked at me oddly and said, “I’ve never seen you cry; do you cry, cause girls usually cry a lot?”

What was I supposed to do, lie? By my answer, I would be judged worthy or unworthy - my garden had only witnessed my tricks of imagination, never out and out lies.

In my best bad-ass pose, voice and delivery, I decided to snarl, “No. I don’t cry. I never cry. I didn’t even cry when my great grandma died.”

Part of my answer was true, part false. Maybe the goodness of the true would cancel the badness of the false. I felt my cast of thousands looking on in disapproval.

I saw belief and admiration in his eyes.

“The other rule is never, ever, no matter what snitch on the gang. Say after me, ‘Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye before I ever rat out anyone in the gang.’”

I did, and Skip solemnly announced, “She is now one of us. All that’s left is the blood ceremony.”  

Back in the day, there was no AIDs and hepatitis was something someone far, far away might get. I knew from television shows how blood brothers (and sisters, I suppose, though I never really saw girls perform this ritual), were made. It was serious business and not to be entered into lightly.

We stood in a circle and Skip pulled out his little pocketknife with a carving of some western scene on its handle. One by one, he cut a tiny gash in each of the boys’ fingers, then his own. Not one of them even winced - it was a grim-faced group with jaws set tight. Marshall had to squeeze and coax his finger until a small red ruby rested on its tip, which made me queasy.

At last, it was my turn.

My garden was very hot that day and gnats swarmed round our little circle. I could swear I heard their buzzing sounds like a freight train in my ears.

Skip watched my face as he pierced my finger and I remember the sharp, unpleasant poke and the urge to flinch, but mostly I remember the sick feeling of seeing my blood flowing freely down my finger into my hand.  Dizziness threatened as I rubbed bloody fingers with each one of my new blood brothers.

The sound in my ears escalated from a freight train to a tornado and my dizziness turned to nausea. I had visions of barfing all over everyone and ruining the ceremony. I prayed silently not to embarrass myself in such a way and held back tears and vomit. I looked around the circle at all the dirty little fingers, smeared with blood and thought I already saw infections setting in. Everyone took turns patting me on the back and headed off for home just as my grandma hailed me from the small stoop, “Mary, time to come in for dinner.”

The gang and I were thick as thieves that summer and though I occasionally indulged in imaginary adventures, my cast of thousands had lost their shine. Jesse, Billy, Matt and Errol moved over to make a place for Skip, the blood brothers and games of competition.

One especially hot day, we were back behind the big shed playing dodge ball. It was sweaty, intense and dirty but ball had become a way of life for me. We took a break and Bill meandered off to the hickory tree to pee.

“You’re not supposed to do that! If Grandma catches you, you’ll be in big trouble.”

All the gang, except for Skip would pee somewhere other than the outhouse occasionally (I really hated it when they peed around my hickories). I always dutifully admonished them, but it was hard to blame anyone for avoiding the outhouse, especially on days where the heat made the aroma especially pungent.

Bill retorted, “Whatsa matter with your grandma – she got something against taking a piss?”

Twittering laughter.

“Yeah, what’s the deal?” Gary chimed in.

“Don’t your grandma piss, Mary?” Marshall quipped.

“Oh, yeah, she does, but I bet it’s like this…” Bill began to enact a prissy little scene with my grandma lifting her skirts and with a pained and disdainful look, squatting clumsily to pee. They all cackled – it might have been the best performance of Bill’s non-existent theater career. Even Skip was rolling on the ground.

For me, it was not funny…because it was about my grandma…and it was about girls too, and the difference that required them to strike an awkward and uncool pose to relieve themselves. Bill’s imitation made me think of the time I squatted to pee and drenched my socks. I stood awkwardly silent, my face red and splotchy. By not joining in, I had separated myself from the group. Yet, I realized by always having to squat to pee, I was never really one of them, never truly on equal footing with the blood brothers, despite the ceremony, and it was a sad epiphany.

I decided not to laugh it off but to stand my ground and stare them down starting with Skip who I felt the most betrayed by. He met my eyes, surprised at first, then instantly defiant. My blood brother had forgotten to tell me the third rule: never challenge the boss in front of the gang.

He advanced on me like I had seen him do a hundred times before with the boys until finally, we stood eye to eye and toe to toe.

It was a stare down. First to blink or look away would lose.

Moments went by and all were silent. A random breeze kicked up and began to play like a mischievous fairy around my lashes, fanning heat into my eyes and pulling at my lids. I noticed Skip’s eyes starting to tear up…he was going to blink first!

Then, stepping in probably under a covert agreement to always save Skip from any embarrassment, his wing man, Bill, yelled out, “Aw, f**k her, Skip. She’s probably all upset she can’t do this.”

Bill was peeing on the side of the shed making swooping, and fairly artistic patterns.

The gang never said the F-word directly to or about me before, and I glanced at Bill ever so briefly in shock, which meant I instantly lost. Skip was off the hook, but the win was uncomfortable, and everyone stood awkwardly as the acrid smell of urine wafted off the shed.

Maybe to break the awkwardness, or just because he felt the urge, Marshall called out, “That ain’t nothing to be proud of, Bill. Watch this!”

He began to pee on the shed too but created a much higher arc - raising the bar, so to speak.

Gary added, “Sh*t, I can beat you both,” and joined the challenge.

Tension was melting away. Skip turned to me and suddenly smiled, “Okay, assholes, Mary will be the judge,” as he proceeded to join in.

So, I was given a consolation prize, a team mascot role. Part of me wondered if I was supposed to make sure Skip won…another to-lie-or-not-to-lie moment in my garden.

As I was considering all this, around the corner came Grandma.

I still remember the look on her face.

The boys spotted her too and started tucking, ducking and running.

Grandma’s arms were like windmills as she ran after them. Everything seemed like it was in slow motion, except for Grandma who was gaining ground on them. The blood brothers were looking pretty scared, and I was feeling kind of proud of Grandma. I thought with some pleasure, Bill will think twice before doing any rude pantomimes of her squatting to pee again.

Like an avenging angel who instinctively knows the right target, she singled Bill out and caught him by one arm. She got her whacks in as he orbited her like a cartoon planet. The rest of the gang made a beeline for home – guess they didn’t have a rule about no soldier left behind.

Under my hickory tree, Bill was screaming, and Grandma was cussing – the same tree where the rude pantomime took place (this must be what poetic justice means, I thought). The same tree too, I suddenly remembered, where an interloper first ate of the forbidden fruit.

Bill’s orbit might have gone on much longer except Grandma loved switches. Usually, she made the penitent choose their own switch, but Bill was unlikely to cooperate at this moment. Just as she reached for an especially enticing little number hanging low and perfect on my hickory tree, he seized the chance to break free.

He must have forgotten the first rule of the blood brothers because he cried and whaled much like a little girl all the way home.

In my defense, I weakly offered, “Sometimes they pee in the yard, but I always tell them not to. They don’t listen to me.”

I was a bit afraid I would suffer Bill’s fate as well, but Grandma must have run out of steam. I thanked my lucky stars when she dropped the switch. She encircled my shoulders and took me into the house where I was allowed to watch TV and eat popsicles for the rest of the day. There was a hushed conversation with Skip’s mother on the phone, and I was informed the boys were not allowed to come over – the blood brothers had been banished for the rest of the summer.

The next day, I went Outside. My garden seemed to smile at me, and Billie-the-Kid and Matt Dillon were the first to welcome me back. I already had some new worlds anxious to come alive – I felt my cast of thousands chomping at the bit. All that had transpired seemed like a brief intermission, and it remained to be seen if Act II of the Blood Brothers in the Garden would ever play out. I cannot say that no part of me missed them, but I can say sometimes it felt as if part of me was slipping away and becoming someone I didn’t know, someone who lied just to fit in.

One day shortly before school was getting ready to start, I saw Skip playing in his yard and our eyes briefly met across the holler and field that separated us. I smiled and he turned his head as an understanding passed between us – a banishment from the garden must be honored.

January 30, 2024 15:50

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Jenny Cook
00:30 Feb 10, 2024

I really enjoyed your story Tracy,it was a glimpse into the innocence of children at play long ago. You brought your characters to life - I could easily picture them in my mind.


Tracy Phillips
00:47 Feb 11, 2024

Thank you very much for taking the time to read, and especially comment on this story. I am gratified to hear you enjoyed my characters- probably one of my hopeful intentions for all my writing is to bring people enjoyment and feel uplifted- often within the context of more serious and sometimes darker influences. This one was mostly playful and I am so happy to hear it struck you that way. I post other works on Substack if you would like to check out: substack.com@wyrdplay. Thanks again for your encouraging comments!


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Julie Grenness
22:29 Feb 07, 2024

Well written vignette. This story presents a real world view of old days and times. The subject is nostalgic, with apt imagery and a vivid word picture. Worked well for this reader.


Tracy Phillips
00:57 Feb 11, 2024

Thank you Julie, for taking the time to read and especially to comment on my story- I appreciate your comments and encouragement and am especially happy it brought you enjoyment to read. 🤗🥰😊


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Tracy Phillips
15:54 Jan 30, 2024

I hope I wasn't supposed to check the box about sensitive content. The story does include a peeing contest, and I used ** with the F-word that somehow makes folks feel that the word has lost its offensive umph. If I was remiss, I am sorry...I suppose I am not all that sensitive and maybe unable to gauge appropriately the sensitivity of others. :(


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David Sweet
21:24 Feb 12, 2024

Great story! Reminds me of the times and place where I grew up. Although, I will say, I don't know if I ever took a pee in front of a girl! Haha. The girl in our gang was our cousin. I understand completely about not wanting to go in the outhouse in the summer! Thanks for such a poignant and nostalgic story! These characters became very real to me. Well-done!!


Tracy Phillips
21:48 Feb 12, 2024

Thank you and so glad you liked it- it was pretty memoir style for me and those boys were really real. It gives me great joy to find readers who get a kick out of my stories 🤗🤗


David Sweet
22:44 Feb 12, 2024

I could see them as real people. I grew up with this!


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