It was summer in Michigan. Which meant my hair was massive with frizz. It was the 1980’s. Which meant that the frizz could work to my advantage.
The problem was that I was the only girl in a neighborhood of boys. And I was starting to develop.
If you know what I mean.
Just about the only thing to do in our neighborhood was hang out and play catch. We’d toss the baseball from mitt to mitt for hours everyday.
“20 Questions,” Mark said one day. “Who’s first?”
“Benji,” I said.
“Aw, come on. I’m always first,” Benji said.
“Just answer the questions, butt breath,” Alex said. “Question 1. Have you ever broken the law?”
“No.” Benji. “You know that! Ask questions you don’t know already.”
“Question 2,” I said. “Who do you want to marry.”
We barraged him with question after question until he got sick of answering questions about poop and girls. It was a most remarkably mature group.
“That’s it. I’m going home.” He dropped his mitt on the ground and kicked it in front of himself all the way out of the back yard.
“Oh, come on, Benji!” Alex. “Don’t be such a sissy!”
We followed him around Mark’s big, two story house. He picked up his mitt and ran across the street to his house.
“You’re being a girl,” I yelled.
We walked slowly toward Benji’s front porch. This was our daily routine. He’d eventually bring out popsicles and everything would be all better.
“Hey, you hear that?” Alex.
The splashing of water sounded from the house right next to Benji’s.
“They’re in the pool,” Mark said. “It’s so hot. I wish they’d let us swim.”
The Dingbats (or at least that’s what we called them) installed a pool four summers before. It was enormous. From end to end, side to side it filled the entire backyard. And it was “in ground”. We’d been sweating to get in that chlorine treated water for all those hot days. But every time we asked for a dip in the pool they’d reject us.
“Can’t let you kids in there. Chemicals are too strong today.” Or, “I just cleaned it. You’d get it dirty.” Or, “Stop coming over here!”
“Let’s go in the tree house,” Mark said.
Benji’s big brothers built that tree house years and years ago. It looked directly over the Dingbat’s pool.
We climbed up the flimsy wooden ladder and peaked out the space in the slats of wood.
“He’s just skimming the leaves out,” I said, watching Mr. Dingbat.
“There aren’t any leaves in there,” Alex.
Benji climbed into the tree, a bag of chips and four cans of cola. “What you guys doing?”
“Thanks for the snacks,” I said.
“Man, sometimes when I watch that jerk cleaning that pool, it makes me so mad. I just want to blow it up.” Mark couldn’t take his eyes off the sparkling water.
“Let’s do it.” Benji shoved a handful of chips into his mouth. “Let’s blow it up. My brother left some old fireworks in his room.”
“Yeah.” Mark. “Let’s do it.”
We concocted an elaborate plan. We’d all wear black, even painting our faces. Our parents wouldn’t even know we were gone after we snuck out our bedroom windows. We’d be back home in our beds before the explosion even happened. We hadn’t considered how to deal with the black make-up we would be wearing.
Not all plans made by 15 year olds are that well thought out.
Benji’s knowledge of explosives startled me. He knew the amount we would need and where they would best be placed. He even had plans for an ignition switch placed in the field behind the Dingbat’s fence. He swore that nothing would be linked to us.
Alex walked me home. He lived a few houses down from me.
“Benji’s not really doing this, is he?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I think he’s just goofing.” Alex.
“But what if he isn’t?”
“Then I guess the Dingbats are going to get it.”
“Are you really showing up there tonight?”
“Yeah. I just wanna see what happens.”
“Me, too.” I smiled. “But I’m not wearing black paint on my face.”
At 1:38 am I climbed out my window, wearing all black.
Alex met me on the sidewalk and we scampered to Benji’s backyard. Mark was there, spreading charcoal on his face.
“Where’s Benji?” I whispered.
“I don’t know. Hasn’t come out yet,” Mark said. “Want some war paint?”
“We aren’t really doing this, are we?” Alex asked.
“Of course we are,” Mark.
“This is so stupid. Somebody’s gonna find out.” I pulled up the hood of my jacket. “We’re gonna go to juvey.”
“Nah,” Mark said. “Benji has all that covered.
“Since when do we trust Benji?” Alex asked.
We heard a window slide up from the house. Then a thud and a crash. Then curse words. Lights turned on.
“Boy, what the hell’re you doin’?” It was Benji’s father.
“Nothing, dad,” Benji said. His voice was high pitched. “Just opening a window.”
“Don’t you lie to me, boy. What you doin’ with them fire crackers?”
“I don’t know.”
We heard the hand smack Benji’s face.
“Wanna change your answer?”
There was another hit.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“Hide. Get in the tree house,” Alex said.
We climbed quietly. All the while we could hear our friend being beaten and yelled at. And the noise of it kept getting louder and louder. So did Benji’s cries for help.
A light flipped on next door. Mr. Dingbat walked out his back door. He looked over the fence, trying to see what the commotion was.
“Hey, psst!” I called to him.
He looked up.
“Up here. You gotta call the cops.”
He nodded his head and went back inside.
When the police arrived and carted Benji’s dad away, we climbed out of the tree. We were questioned. What did we see? Hear? Why were we there?
We were each escorted home by a police officer. My parents were livid. I was grounded for two weeks.
The next week Benji was gone. Like so many people from my childhood, he just went away. There were no cell phones or social networks. There wasn’t even email. We made up our own assumptions. Mark thought he’d moved in with one of his TNT loving big brothers. Alex was convinced that Benji was institutionalized. I just thought his mom needed a new place, to start over.
Mr. Dingbat drained the pool, had it filled in with cement. We never knew why. I think that somehow we realized that we had no right to know.