Photograph by Sean Lotman
by Josh Luft
It was one of those summer days that desired amusement. One of those days when the sun sweeps the clouds from its view, takes a seat in the center of the sky, and watches the neighborhood matinee.
One of the neighborhood kids burst from the garage, his shock of red hair a lit wick. He rushed through the backyard to the small park on the west end of the block, hugging to his chest a large plastic bucket, its metal handle drumming the side in a rhythm that couldn’t quite keep up with the beat of his feet.
“Got it!” The boy held the bucket up above his head, grinning.
Issue #45 soundtrack: Day Joy "New Ordinary"
“Shut up,” said the oldest one, the leader.
The rest of the kids stood around the park’s middle bench. Like the other two, the bench was metal and had been painted numerous times over the years. In the chips and cracks from nicknames and cryptic messages scratched into the paint, you could see the layers of vibrant primary colors beneath the latest coat of brown, like flowers buried in a mudslide.
The boy reached the bench and dropped the bucket. It struck the seat with a resounding KHLUNG.
The leader turned his head from side to side, scanning the area. “He could hear that.”
The neighborhood was tucked away from the main roads and naturally quiet. The others scanned along with the leader. With the trees sparse in the park, any sound, like their voices, carried through the yards.
“We’re clear.” Luckily, nothing had been carried to who they were looking for.
They huddled around the bucket on the bench. It was a dingy white with dried mud splatter ringing the bottom. A crack extended an inch past the lip, closing in on one of the handle sockets. The handle was rusted, flaking.
The second-in-command looked inside the bucket and asked, “Where’s the ingredients?”
“Down here,” said one of the young ones, bending down to remove clusters of green berries and crabapples, a pile of blue-veined leaves, and sugar packets from below the bench.
“Sugar? It ain’t s’posed to be sweet.”
“How else’ll we get ’em to drink it?”
“Yeah. ’Member that time he asked for a pop when we were havin’ some outside my house?"
“Go get the rest.”
The bucket boy made another trip to the garage, this time returning with a jug of water and a lemonade-yellow sandbox shovel. He took a pull from the jug.
“That’s for The Potion, turd.”
Some of the kids stood as lookouts while others dumped the ingredients into the bucket. When all the ingredients were in, the leader picked up the shovel and stirred up the sludge, “The Potion.”
The Potion was being brewed for a boy named Leonard, the neighborhood villain. Leonard had become the villain for reasons typical to kids that age: 1.) he lived nearby, but just outside of the zone where they all lived; 2.) he came off a little slow; 3.) he may have pooped in his pants while walking past one of the kids’ houses one afternoon two years ago; 4.) he had a huge head. Though the pooped-in-his-pants story always brought tons of laughter and disgust with each retelling, it was really the huge head, a cinder block of a noggin, square as that of Frankenstein’s Monster, which made Leonard infamous. Even some of the kids’ parents knew of it, and, like their kids, referred to Leonard as “The Head.”
The kids sat around a faded-teal picnic table next to the garage. Bikes littered a patch of driveway beside them. They pretended to trade baseball cards, but, really, they were watching the park’s middle bench. On the bench was a Styrofoam cup filled with The Potion, waiting to work its magic on The Head. How exactly that magic would work was left unsaid, more fun as a mystery soon to be revealed.
“Where is he? I’m sicka sittin’ here.” They’d been perched at the table for awhile.
“Let’s play baseball or somethin’.”
“We can’t ’cause we’ll be in the park and then he won’t come by.”
“Why don’t we just drop it off at his house?”
“What if his parents are home?”
“Then they’ll drink it!”
“Or they’ll smash us with their fat heads!”
The kids leapt from the table and reenacted a battle between themselves and Leonard’s parents, who they gave gigantic heads. It was pure slapstick. The littlest ones were the parents, holding their arms out as far as they could, hands level with their ears, pretending to carry the massive domes, waddling in the grass beneath the weight. A couple of the others made like they’d been caught, falling to the ground, the little ones dipping their heads down ever so slightly to crush the captives. The leader and second-in-command could barely breathe from laughing so hard.
After the battle, they got antsy, wandering from the table in and around the garage, tossing out suggestions.
“What if we Ding Dong Ditch ’em?”
One came out of the garage dribbling a basketball. “I wanna play some b-ball.”
“Hmm,” said the leader.
“We can watch while we play.”
The kids were in the house now, the wind rolling the basketball back and forth in a groove at the edge of the driveway. I’d waited fifteen minutes before going out. I knew I wouldn’t have long.
I let out a quick cackle as I made my way from the park back to my house. The monitor slipped out of my back pocket in the front lawn, but I had to keep moving. I couldn’t let them come out and see me clutching The Potion.
The neighborhood kids were always up to something during the summer. Today it was The Potion. Last week, it was the Fourth of July early: musty stuffed animals slashed open, filled with packs of firecrackers, and then executed; bottle rockets on flights through storm drains, their explosions causing a subterranean rumble; dynamite-sized smoke bombs going off for five minutes, layering the streets with an acrid fog. The week after school ended, it was this gum that made their spit as thick and red as blood, leading to bouts of faux boxing.
I worked nights so I’d see it all—the freedom that kids know, the liberty of June, July, and August days where a good jump on the BMX trail was everything. My baby daughter, Mia, would see much of it with me. I’d hold her up by the screen window and let her check out that freedom through her curious hazel eyes. I’d whisper in her ear, “You’ll know.” It made her feet twitch.
I had a couple of hours before my wife came home and I went off to work. I had taken a job at a call center for an athletic apparel company, working from four to midnight. It was something my wife and I had worked out before Mia was born. We didn’t live near our parents, and couldn’t afford a sitter, so we decided to split our schedules and share coverage. I didn’t mind the hours—I was always up late anyway—but I dreaded the work, which was repetitive, tedious.
I was trying to get some work done around the house while my daughter slept, but couldn’t stay focused. I kept looking out the living room window at The Potion, wondering if poor Leonard was going to show up. The whole scheme reminded me of something my friends and I had done twenty years ago.
My three best friends and I were on an entrepreneurial kick one summer. We had reached that age where we wanted things—skateboards, CDs, burgers—and realized we could make our own cash to get them. We started up a lemonade stand. We were all ten or eleven, and mischievous little bastards, so naturally we had to put a twist on it. I’d had a birthday a week before. At my party, a bunch of my family loved drinking the Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg Lemonade. I asked if I could have some—it was only right for the birthday boy to have something so loved. But I was shut down, of course, because there was booze in it. While we were planning the stand, I was thinking about this. I figured kids like us wouldn’t have money for lemonade, so we should be selling to adults. And not some ordinary lemonade, but an adult lemonade—our very own Lynchburg Lemonade. We set up the stand outside of my friend Paul’s house—his parents were at work and wouldn’t notice any missing liquor. The stand wasn’t the goldmine we’d hoped for—the street turned out to be way too quiet for business. However, we did have one customer: one of Paul’s neighbors, who, after finishing mowing his lawn, bought fifteen bucks worth of lemonade. “Nice work, fellas,” he said. We took our earnings and bought an N.W.A. album, which we’d all been warned against by our parents, and listened to in secret for the rest of the summer.
After their fourth or fifth game of basketball, I could tell the kids weren’t paying attention to The Potion. When they went inside the house, it was proven. I saw the cup sitting there and thought about Paul’s neighbor. I understood something then. There existed an unspoken rule that perpetuated adolescent hi jinx. That’s really what Paul’s neighbor was doing that day when he saw us standing haplessly around our dinky stand. He wasn’t just a 30 year-old man mowing a crisscross, baseball-outfield pattern into his lawn, but a former prankster, as well. He understood then that it was his duty to intervene in a case of the current generation stalling out. Now I was in his role. It was my turn to help these kids. I turned a baby monitor on in Mia’s crib, put the other in my back pocket, and went outside.
I came in through the backdoor of my house, set The Potion on the kitchen counter, and got back to the living room window. Mia was still napping, the musical mobile spinning its sleepy melody softly above her chubby little face.
The kids motored out of the house, their courses curling and looping around one another like Matchbox cars on a neon-orange track. They came to a stop by the garage and peeked over at the park bench.
“Lookit, you guys. The Potion’s gone.”
“Holy shit, Leonard drank it!”
“Chill out, dork, we don’t—”
“I ain’t a dork, you big—”
“Everybody shut up. We gotta go check it out.”
I clapped my hands as the pack cautiously descended upon the park. Mia awoke roaring.
“Oh no. I’m sorry, honey.”
I picked her up and brought her over to the window. “Look what Daddy did.”
The boys arrived at the bench, looking all around, expecting to see The Head swigging from the cup, its muddy contents dripping slowly as sap down his throat, the magic beginning to take effect.
“Daddy’s got The Potion,” I said to Mia.
I was pleased with my handiwork. Mia was looking out at the park, wide-eyed, the tears drying on her cheeks. I took that as a sign of approval.
The story they’d all be able to tell! The Day The Head Drank The Potion. It was going to make their day, make their summer. And it wouldn’t stop there. Once they went back to school, they’d gather up all of their other friends around the monkey bars and tell it there. Next summer, they’d retell it to one another, reenacting the making of The Potion, The Head’s sneaky, Gollum-like capture of the cup, and, of course, his fateful gulp. Then, older, like me, they’d look out at the neighborhood kids, or their own, and remember the tale all over again.
The kids were in a powwow, breaking away from time to time to look at something across the park. I had to put Mia down so I could get in the corner of the room, peek out the edge of the window, and see what they were looking at. It was Don, the next door neighbor. Don was a retired pilot with an impeccable crew cut and a permanent sock tan—despite never seeming to wear any shoes or socks. He was watering the rose bushes on the side of his house. The kids deliberated for thirty seconds more before walking over to Don.
“What the hell are they up to, honey?”
Don turned off the hose and greeted them warmly. One of them spoke to Don. I had my ear pressed to the screen, but, for once, when they were trying to speak quietly, they actually spoke quietly. Don shook his head in response. The kids were about to leave when Don said what sounded like my name, before he lifted his arm, and pointed a bronze finger right at my living room window.
I backed away from the window, hoping the reflection of blue skies and shadow from the white birch tree on the glass would cover me. I let a few seconds pass before I dropped to the floor and crawled over to the bottom-right corner of the window. The kids were marching across the street to my house.
I rolled away from the window into the corner of Mia’s crib. She looked at me through the bars, smiling.
Did Don just give me up? I thought. What about the Perpetuation of Hi Jinx? With the stories he and his wife shared, there was no way he was an angel at that age.
The doorbell rang.
What in the hell am I going to do? They cannot know I took The Potion. I remember what happened to the adults that messed with my friends and me when we were kids: we made their lives a living hell. We’d shoot bottle rockets at their windows, toilet paper their trees, and egg their houses. We were sly about it, so they could never pin it on us, but they knew. They knew they were our villain. That’s what I was going to be to these kids: the new villain. The Head would be forgotten, all of their schemes directed at me, my wife, my daughter.
I picked up Mia to answer the door. Even mischievous kids can’t help but trust a man with a baby. Don’s a sweet guy who gives away root beer, but I am a man with a baby.
I opened the front door, looking innocent as could be with Mia.
“What’s up, guys?”
They stood on the steps like a miniature version of Young Guns. I looked them over, wondering which one was going to be the one to speak. That was always my job. I was the youngest and smallest, and, therefore, innocent and trustworthy. I got my friends and me out of a lot of jams with my sweet little mug. It worked until I was about thirteen. Then I looked too keen and crafty, had to switch from looks to wits. Because of that, I figured it wouldn’t be the oldest, the leader.
“Hi,” said the leader.
Have the leader speak, go against expectations, show you’re not up to anything. Well played, I thought.
“Can we ask you a question?”
“Uh… Yeah, sure.”
“We had a, um, cup out in the park?”
We’re gonna go this route, are we? Draw it out? I felt my face becoming flush. I was trying to provide them with a lifelong memory. Now I was about to become an idiot, a villain.
“It’s, um, gone now and Don said that he thought he saw you outside a little while ago?”
The passive-aggressive little bastards! How about a stare-down?
“So we were wondering if maybe you saw somebody take it?”
“Yeah,” a little one chimed in, “maybe by a kid with a really big head?”
“A kid with a big head?” I asked, doing my damnedest to hold back my triumphant grin.
“Why would a kid with a big head take your cup?”
I could see they wanted to answer my question. That they were thinking of a response, but that nothing they could come up with would be appropriate in front of an adult and a baby.
They headed back across the street towards the park. I stood in the doorway for a moment listening.
“It was The Head, guys,” one of them said. “The Head!”
The tale had begun.
“We did it, honey!” I was back inside doing a celebratory dance with my daughter. I was feeling so confident that I thought about continuing the hi jinx. I had an idea to recruit Leonard, have him painted up like a zombie, and then send him groaning into the park.
Mia looked up at me and let out a little whimper.
“Uh-oh. I know that sound. Let’s get you something to eat.”
I put her in the crib and went into the kitchen. The Potion was hardening inside of the Styrofoam cup. The zombie idea was crazy, of course. But that was fine. There was something better, simpler: wait until they went back inside and then put the empty cup back on the bench. It was genius, I thought, as I put banana, blueberries, and milk into the blender for Mia’s snack.
My wife came home from work, waving something at me.
“Why was this baby monitor sitting in the front yard?”
I’d been working so hard around the house the rest of the afternoon that I’d actually forgotten about The Potion. I quickly went to the kitchen and threw the cup in the trash.
“Uh… Oh,” I said, returning to the living room, “Mia was using it to yell at the neighbors.”
“Why didn’t she yell at those kids to get out of the street? I almost hit one of them with the car.”
I looked at Mia wiggling on the carpet and smiled. The Potion was gone but we had something else: the baby monitor. We could get into some hi jinx with that tomorrow.
Josh Luft was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. He's the author of the blog What a Fool Believes and has contributed work to The Awl, Black Table, and Dark Sky Magazine.
Sean Lotman has been featured in WOOF!, Fogged Clarity, Grey Sparrow, Ragazine and elsewhere. He recently collaborated with his girlfriend (aarriikkoo.com) and a Taiwanese publisher on a photo book called 'Wanderlust.' Visit Sean's online portfolio at seanlotman.com.
Day Joy is Orlando-based Michael Serrin and Peter Michael Perceval (also of thedropp.com). Though the duo's songs have developed into lush and layered recordings, they all started with just the two band mates on a porch writing together. Day Joy plans to release a full album later in 2012. In the meantime, stream or download their 7" release at dayjoy.bandcamp.com.