What if the backwoods—the brush, the fallen tree limbs, snapped twigs and pulverized dirt, the massive trench at the end of the culvert running under Chase Avenue, the families of raccoons we chased with aluminum bats (but never intended to harm), the woodpeckers, high above, metronomical, diligent in their work, who made us stop in our tracks and say, “Where is that coming from?” and all the baseballs that sailed overhead that no one bothered to retrieve, and all the Titleists we hoped to whack far into the distance, but more often pinballed off of trees and back towards our feet, and all the ditched beer cans, stomped out spliffs, salivary projectiles deployed in spitting contests, the clay monster masks that were nailed up to trees one Halloween but were never taken down, that hammock that felt impossible to climb into while it was swinging but impossible to leave once it had swallowed you whole and you were lying in its belly, staring up at the trees, the trees, the latticework of their overhanging branches—what if it had all gone up in flames?
What if Xavier gave the bonfire we couldn’t start, despite all the years of wilderness certification between us, one more squirt of lighter fluid? What if that stream of chemicals, and the startling streak of blue and orange that followed its every turn, had climbed up his pant leg, leaving him incapable of playing soccer or instigating mayhem ever again? Would he have found Jesus in a burn ward, dropped out of school, and joined a convent in the Pyrenees?
But wasn’t that night, in its own way, an awakening, a revelation? Hadn’t Xavier, the fear of God in his eyes, muttered to himself again and again, like a work song, “Captain Marzilli’s gonna kill me, Captain Marzilli’s gonna kill me…” while dousing his mistake with bottled water and mixing bowls filled from the kitchen sink? Could you imagine the tongue-lashing he would have endured if Alex’s dad, Captain Marzilli, had seen smoke billowing over his house, the growing inferno devouring the Newton-Waltham border? Didn’t Captain Marzilli already have reason enough to banish us once and for all from 10 Chase Avenue, denying us a rendezvous point where our collective idiocy could continue to fester? Where did his son find these ungrateful, knucklehead friends of his? Didn’t they have anything better to do than to sit on his couch, drink his beer, and eat his food? Would him putting his foot down have been the death knell for our infamous “friend group?”
And who calls it a “friend group,” anyway? How had our dear friend Shelly appeared so suddenly, like a continuity error in a TV show, clinging to the rail of Alex’s front stoop? How could she stand there and vilify Xavier as he scrambled to maintain some semblance of order, scraping out the scattered embers popping up around him like a hellish game of Whack-A-Mole? And why yell something so damning, so incendiary as, “YOU’RE OUT OF THE FRIEND GROUP, XAVIER” when she had no way of making good on her declaration? Who died and made her Dean of Admissions to our little clique? What prompted her to say that? Was it some sort of primeval, pyrolatrous respect for the blaze, bedded deep in her ancestry? Or was it a mother hen reflex? Wasn’t the situation under control? How much shit has Xavier given Shelly for that gross overreaction, in that same yard, every summer thereafter? How does she put up with it? Is this how we reconnect now, by drudging up each other’s past embarrassments? Is it possible that mockery has always been our most reliable social adhesive?
When do we run out of free breaks? When do the brakes fail? When do you look back at your friends, mouth agape, and realize you’ve already spent your last mulligan?
Jack Reibstein is from Newton, Massachusetts. He studied at Wesleyan University, where he learned how to be a concise writer. His responsibilities include a teaching job, a Medium page, a Twitter account, and not much else.