With only three or four channels and each other to fight with in a three-bedroom house with four children, it took very little to entertain us. Especially when Mother tried her best to shoo away four energy-draining parasites. Kids can be forced to consume only so many hours of The Muppet Show and HeeHaw.
Otherwise, outside we went — roaming the neighborhood on bikes, scaling a boulder-strewn hill that led down from the railroad tracks to a “stream” (in actuality, probably a sewer), walking the flea-bitten dog around the block, or cleaning up the yard in punishment for myriad transgressions. Picking at each other was chief among those wrongdoings. Mom would say, “Get outside and do something.” Gathering fallen sticks or blown garbage was much better than sitting back-to-back with a sparring sibling.
My younger brother and I were forever in search of something to do, especially in the summertime when the heat kept the street’s tar bubbled up to squish under our bare feet. Otherwise, we stomped dirt in the back lot into big clouds. We’d look down at the filth patterns lining our heels as sweat from our soaked foreheads dripped onto the dust like the trickle of a shower.
The lot was where intrigued neighbor kids came to touch a horse for the first time or feed one some grass. We’d watch our ornery Shetland pony and blind Appaloosa stallion from across the fence, warned within an inch of our lives to keep others out lest they get hurt and their parents sue us. Ours was a vaguely inhospitable and paranoid home life. I dared not tell when the mean kid hit the horse’s rump with a rock and blew into its sightless face, which made the huge beast strain backward and bare its teeth. That girl might’ve acted tough but was pretty scared that day.
My brother and I hung out together if other kids were grounded or too busy, maybe at a family dinner table unfamiliar to us. We played on a rust-wrecked swing set in the back yard and made up games where we chased each other under a clothesline askew from an errant horse that ran scared and got snagged by its neck. We climbed trees, up high where I’d once hid safely over the head of an unsuspecting sister dead set on revenge.
Other kids went to the park. We went to the horse lot.
In a time before livestock was restricted in city limits, our dad kept a few horses in the lot with its sparse stalls behind our house. That’s where he trimmed horse hooves and threw the excess to the dog, put shoes on certain ones for parades, and where we witnessed many foals be born. We also played there for lack of anywhere else.
The allure was long lost on our older sisters who had other interests by then, but we still jumped on an invitation for something more to do. Especially a chance to watch our dad in action. He’d announce he was burning feed sacks and elicit our quick arrival in the bare paddock, shimmying over its makeshift fencing and past the water trough to join him in the center where he broke some to ride.
My brother warranted his approval, him being a boy and all, whereas I was left wanting at the periphery. So it was a big deal to get a minute of my dad’s sparse time.
Clad in work-weary Wranglers and Dingo boots as dusty as our feet, he leaned over to light the feed sacks with his shiny silver Zippo. The MFA logo was quickly consumed as flames licked through the paper and string closures. The fire burned fast, and the cinders floated up into the darkening night sky if a breeze blew. Their crispy black borders sizzled, and we’d run to stomp them out before any dry grass sparked.
I’d tilt my head back to watch the shapes twirl overhead, spinning in a temporary state of fugue, until they landed softly in the carpet of dust and were snuffed out. The excitement burned through quickly, too, as fast as my dad’s short-lived awareness of our hanging on his every move. That momentary deference lilted with the paper cinders. I’d watch him turn and walk away, his denim-shirted back to us, and saw only the sweat-stained tan suede of his cowboy hat and his bowed legs taking him in the opposite direction.
Back to his own adult business.
Left to the childhood task of entertaining ourselves.