To catch a leaf

[A snippet from a writing project in gestation that will probably make more sense if you read the preceding snippets.]

I’ve been walking around the neighborhood every afternoon as part of my pre-hab regimen. My route takes me past a hilly patch of maple trees that, if followed through, leads back to the dead end of Pleasant Street, where my parents live now, and which will forever be “Grandma’s Street” in my mind. I remember vividly when, as a kid, I fully explored these woods for the first time, starting from the dead end of Grandma’s street and clambering my way through to this other end where I’m standing now. It was like discovering another planet. “Who are these people living in these strange houses?” I had thought to myself. This little patch of woods was like a whole world unto itself back in those days. It looks so small now, so insignificant.

Across the main thoroughfare and several blocks away is the house I grew up in. At the end of that street is a much bigger patch of trees, but still, nothing compared to my memory of it. These were the woods where David Woodburn and I discovered a pile of porno magazines, just lying there conspicuously beside a well-worn path, like a hastily laid trap. I can still remember the name of one the centerfold models. Cathy St. George. I smuggled the key pages of that issue back home, folded up in my back pocket, and kept the stash buried under the front porch in a zip-lock sandwich bag. I can still recall the musty smell under that porch, how I would have to pull back a piece of broken wood to crawl under, how I would brave the spiders for a look at Cathy, but for no other cause. Those woods were also where Jason Gillam and I saw a “walking stick” crawling up a tree one day. There was also the mysterious “underground fort” we found in a hidden clearing. Actually, it was a dug out pit covered by a big piece of plywood, and it was full of empty beer cans. David and I smuggled my Daisy Red Ryder B-B Gun into these woods once. I remember the thrill of lining up my first bird, then the shame when it dropped dead to the ground. And, of course, who could forget the “sand banks”— that ledge from which we would leap down onto the soft, sandy slope below, sometimes tumbling all the way down to the apartment complex at the bottom, the one where all the poor people lived.

There was also a teeny tiny patch of trees – long since cleared away—directly behind my house, which provided just enough cover for the neighborhood boys to convince Cindy Wilson to pull her pants down and show us all what was going on down there. Afterwards there was talk of how Frankie Dalton stuck a stick up her crack, but I don’t think that really happened. But we did build several forts back there over the years, most of which were eventually torn down by rival groups of kids living down by the “brick road.” Of course, we would search for, find, and destroy their forts as well, for good measure, although who knew who started the whole mess. We built some really cool tree forts and one huge fort on the ground that was like a little house. Our parents even let some of us sleep there one night. Carry Woodburn was there, and the rest of us conspired to try the old “warm water” trick on her after she fell asleep. And did it ever work! She pissed herself right through the sleeping bag.

All this from passing a little patch of maples.

The other day the wind was blowing briskly, and I noticed a few leaves drifting down from these maples onto the road in front of me. Suddenly it occurred to me – I hadn’t caught a leaf yet this year! It’s my own little fall tradition, to catch at least one leaf as it falls from a tree. In years past I’ve been known to run down a promising leaf to the to ends of the earth if need be, often diving onto the grass or even out into traffic in an attempt to make the grab. I even got Molly into it last year, although she was less willing to go the necessary lengths to make a legitimate catch. It has to be fresh from the branch and caught before it hits the ground. Nothing off a roof or blown up from the ground will do. Anyway, being crippled in Mexico this fall, I had forgotten all about this annual event. Having remembered it presently, there was nothing to do but catch a friggin’ leaf, come hell or high water. To fail to do so would be a disgrace of the worst variety. I have said it many times before, that the year I go an entire fall without catching at least one leaf, that’s the beginning of the end, a sure sign I have given up the ghost and lost all connection to reality.

Well, let me tell you, it’s not as easy as you think, especially with a torn ACL. In fact, I only had two realistic opportunities to make a grab over the course of my walk, and both times the leaf suddenly changed direction just as I was about to gain possession. This, of course, is the whole challenge, the whole fun of it, but the bottom line is I returned home without having made a grab. Now, it’s always preferable to catch a leaf in the natural course of things, as one is walking along and notices a leaf drifting somewhere within reach. Being overly intentional goes against the spirit of the whole thing. But it being late fall and there being no guarantee of another suitably breezy day, I resorted to standing under the big maple tree in my parents’ backyard. I stood there staring up at the leaves for about forty-five minutes until my neck started getting sore, but the time invested did not yield a catch. Five or six times maybe I had a legitimate shot at one, but whether it was the knee or just wanting it too badly, I just couldn’t get it done. I went back inside to get my bearings and to let my mother know what I was doing, in case one of the neighbors called her to report the strange goings on in her yard. To my surprise my mother admonished me a bit for giving up so easily, and with that I went back out for round two. Within a minute or so, I made the grab. A leaf hit me square in the face, so all I had to do was reach up and pin it to my nose before it had a chance to slip away. But there was more work to be done. I had to catch one for Molly, as she probably had a better chance of seeing a tarantula fall from the sky than a maple leaf. Again, within a minute or so, I had corralled leaf number two. After releasing it back into the breeze from whence it came, I strutted back into the house victorious, rewarding myself with a salami and cheese sandwich and rich cup of coffee.

It seems there’s still a bit of magic left in these old Trojan maples. The veins in the leaves, the roots in the earth—somehow these things are connected to the neurons encased in my skull. Somehow these magic maples can lead me back into the deep woods where long forgotten things can suddenly spring back to life, where boobs, bee-bee guns, and walking sticks float back into view out of an empty September sky, winding their way through the blue before making a soft landing on the tip of my nose.


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