Barry Smith: Irrelativity
Aspen, CO, Colorado
I’m in the yard cleaning up under the big willow tree when I hear a noise – a horrifying, primal noise, one that chills me to my very core. I jettison my armload of gathered branches and drop into a crouch. My body goes into fight-or-flight mode; my heart rate increases, my sight sharpens, my bloodstream floods with adrenaline.
Unconsciously I call out, “What!? It wasn’t me! I wasn’t doing anything.”
Then I hear the sound again.
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
Oh, it’s just my wife, Christina, trying to get my attention by knocking on the kitchen window.
There are things that are lodged so deep inside of me that they’ll never be purged. The sound of someone knocking on a kitchen window is one of them. It will forever cause me to panic.
Let me back up a little bit – or maybe a lot.
My grandparents built their house in Shelby, Miss., in the early 1950s. They constructed their quaint, little three-bedroom house with real indoor plumbing, a luxury that neither of them had grown up with. The window above the sink overlooked the backyard, and for the next 40 years, my grandmother, Nannie, would stand at that sink, cooking, cleaning, canning, shelling, shucking, etc., while also monitoring a yard full of playing kids. Years before I came onto the scene, Nannie had already perfected “The Knock.”
The Knock is what Nannie used in lieu of more sophisticated technology, like an intercom system or texting or a bullhorn. No need for such fancy devices to send a simple message, a message that was always the same: “Stop what you’re doing right now!”
Here’s a good example: Me, my younger brother and my cousin are in the backyard playing on the “swing,” which is what we call the piece of rope tied to a branch of the pecan tree. It occurs to me that it would be fun to use the person on the swing as a moving target – give them a big push and start throwing dirt clods at them. Hey, it’s Mississippi in the ’70s. Dirt-clod throwing was our Internet.
I scoop up a dirt clod and wind up for the pitch, but just as it’s about to leave my hand and zip toward my pendulating brother’s head …
Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock!
Four knocks in quick succession from inside the kitchen window. A sound I already know all too well. Chilling.
“What!? It wasn’t me! I wasn’t doing anything.”
The clod falls from my hand as if smacked out telekinetically, and I begin intently examining the pecan tree’s trunk. Because anybody who’s examining bark as closely as I am could in no way be guilty of wrongdoing.
The Knock was the backyard playtime equivalent of the buzzer on a game of Operation. You touch the sides, you get The Knock. And even though you know it’s about to happen, it never fails to make you jump. And sure, you can pretend all you want – pretend that you didn’t know what you were doing was wrong, pretend that The Knock was meant for someone else, pretend (as if!) that you didn’t even hear The Knock, but you’re not fooling anyone. You always knew exactly for whom The Knock tolls.
There were certain activities that were guaranteed to get you The Knock. Throwing things at each other. Throwing things to each other in a way that was really throwing things at each other. Most variations of roughhousing. Shooting the BB gun at live birds was OK. Shooting the BB gun at paper cutouts of birds placed atop a cousin’s head was, for some reason, not OK.
I was the oldest grandchild, and therefore capable of the most wrongdoing, so I got the brunt of The Knock. That’s why I’ll never fully be free from it. And I’m in no way trying to paint a picture of some constrained or abusive upbringing. Nannie’s backyard was a precious place to be a kid, and I happily spent much of my childhood there. But busted is busted. And The Knock has some real staying power.
“Why did you drop the sticks when I knocked on the window?” my wife asks me. “You looked like you were taking sniper fire. And why are you sweating so much?”
I assure her that it’s nothing.
“But,” I add. “The next time I’m outside the kitchen window and you want to get my attention, you might be better off throwing a dirt clod at me.”
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times.
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