Compared to the lifeless sands of Southern California, the soil in central Illinois is practically food. Not that I know anyone who‘s eaten more than a mouthful. But that mouthful caused no long-term ill effects.
After the worst of a storm on a blustery November afternoon (39 degrees, light drizzle turning to thick mist from the north and then stabbing sleet from the southwest and back to mist or drizzle again), four of us walking through the meadowland of Hessel Park — that rolling open slope between the playground, the pines, the pavilion and the baseball diamond — reached down and grabbed chunks of this rich, rich soil, squished it in our fists and began throwing it at each other. Shoes were tossed under a picnic table beneath the pines, and the four boys scrambling through the chilly mud split off into two teams.
The foursome comprised one Roy, one Dave and two Brians, so we figured we should split the Brians. Brian Willis went with Roy Salter, and Brian Wright sided with me. We had the enormous park to ourselves, and, guarded by grand willows, towering pines, white birch and Chinese elms, we ran laughing through the icy rain, laughing at everything, throwing everywhere, slipping, dodging, skating, spilling out, scooping fresh ammunition from our skid marks and pelting one another with blob after blob of thick, black soil — retreating, eventually, to opposite corners to catch our breath and plan new attacks.
Mudball fights, you understand, were not true fights in that they were not to be won or lost. They were simply to be fought for the sake of getting messy with only minor injuries; excuses to run, to throw, to feel sweat fill one’s fleece, to gallop and tumble through the wet grass and sleeting mist.
When the weather was too cold or dry for mudball fights but not good enough for snowball fights, I often built a fire in the living room after school and read Edgar Allan Poe on the floor. My parents had a Random House hardback: Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, with an introduction by Hervey Allen, published in 1944, designed by Margaret B. Evans, with wood engravings by Fritz Eichenberg. For some reason, the stories didn‘t freak me out nearly as much as the illustrations. Eichenberg’s etchings reached up my spine, found some vulnerable vacancy at the base of my skull and settled in with a brain-thrashing shiver. So entirely freaked out was I by these images — especially the plates that accompanied “Berenice,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” — that I‘d literally leap to my feet and run out of the room; maybe make some hot chocolate or something to recover. The “Berenice” plate was the scariest — a floating skull-like head with gritted, perfect teeth and half-closed eyes, hovering huge and dead above the desk of her cousin, a man driven mad by his obsession with her teeth. I could usually take no more than five seconds of that one. The “Valdemar” plate (hands upon but not quite touching a bedridden corpse) took second place (10 to 15 seconds to overdose); and I could look at “The Masque of the Red Death” plate for up to 30 seconds at a time, probably because while the other two illustrations were close-ups, “Red Death” revealed a wider angle of evil: a dark, gaunt, grim reaper–style figure, cloaked in a filthy robe, towering over his fellow partygoers: the victims he’d intentionally exposed to infection, victims in their first moments of ghastly revelation, cowering from the telltale blotches of the unhooded deathface — the “profuse bleeding at the pores” from which the Red Death took its name.
So I‘d take my break, maybe down a Flintstones vitamin to build up courage, then I’d creep back, still frightened, into the living room, onto the floor before the fireplace, to obsess on the woodcuts again until I could no longer bear it, or to just turn the damn page and get on with my life.
It was just another blob soaring through the sky, in search of some random surface upon which to burst: a tree, a swing set, a body. Waterlogged and heavy with mud, we ran in something between exhaustion and slow motion (as fast as we could), farther and farther apart, favoring the relative sanctuary of the battlemeadow‘s vegetated periphery. Running boys disappearing and reappearing as dark, blurry puffs of steam in the tender mist; the temperature dropping, microdaggers of almost-ice chipping away at our faces as we ran.
Just another blob of any kind, made of anything, launched from anywhere, destined to intersect someone’s path. From behind a thick pine on the meadow‘s western edge, just beyond the baseball diamond, I spied Roy Salter running full-on, southbound along the playground’s perimeter, about 50 yards away. Two-year veteran Little League pitcher that I was, I burst through the mist in a muffled crunch of dead pine needles, stopped at third base, reeled back and launched the blob to the heavens of the Atlantic, some 1,500 miles away. I fell to the ground and watched the mist swallow the rich black sphere of nutritious soil screaming across the sky and landing, a hole in one, in Roy Salter‘s mouth.
Roy’d made the mistake of leaving his mouth open, you see, and now he cringed, his head snapped down and away, his brisk run fluttered and dropped like a shot dove. In a chorus of Holy Shit!, the Brians and I mopped our runny noses with our parka sleeves and ran to the aid of our casualty.
There stood the gaunt Roy Salter in the thickening rain, bony face jutting from his soiled sweatshirt hood, black mud lipstick covering the lower half of his face like Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart, oversize parka clinging, soaked and draped, it occurred to me, just like the villain in Eichenberg‘s “The Masque of the Red Death” etching. I resisted the urge to run off, and instead gathered with the Brians to gawk in gleeful horror at the muck-faced specter of our dearly departed friend. Salter saw our faces and burst out laughing hideously, spitting at us through black teeth, then let out a mournful attack-bellow and leaped, rightfully, onto me, wrestling me, face first but in good humor (“You fucker! How the fuck?”), into the cold, cold, wet, wet ground for a taste.
The Brians piled on for no good reason at all.
Prostate.org (www.prostate.org): information on prostatitis, benign prostatic hypertrophy and prostate cancer.