Frogtown Days

At the Edge of the City


I first noticed her out of the corner of my eye. She was bounding across the open field at full speed. A thing of beauty.

She moved with silent power and grace. You would swear she wasn't even touching the ground, but the tufts of turf she turned up with her hooves betrayed her.

She was cutting across the mowed grass of the railroad yard, just across the four-lane from that cluster of mobile homes on the north edge of Carbondale. Something must have spooked her from that grove of trees beyond the tracks.

I instinctively let up on the gas, although she was on a pace to take her across the highway well ahead of me. I just wanted to watch her run. It probably wasn't more than a few seconds, but it seems like minutes, maybe even half an hour, when I replay it now.

It was just after dawn, and there wasn't much traffic — just me and that step van up ahead who shared this road. It was a step van full of vending machines and snack food, a white and shiny delivery van making its morning rounds. It was a van whose driver didn't have the perspective I had. A van whose brake lights hadn't gone on yet.

I grew up just outside the western edge of Chicago. But when I was a kid, that area was more like the country than the city. It wasn't unusual to see pheasant in our back yard. And rabbits. For the wildlife, there was room to roam and room to run and plenty to eat in Dad's garden.

And it was a neat place to be a boy, too. There were fields to get lost in and creeks to fall into. There were so many trees you could climb a different one every day of the summer. I can still remember how far away my mother's voice would seem when she called me home for dinner. There were plenty of places to hide whenever I wasn't hungry and I could pretend I hadn't heard.

On the far edge of one large field we called “The Prairie,” my friends, my brother and I constructed an entire village of twig huts and dugouts. It was cool, just like Robin Hood's hideout. There were about six or seven of us kids, and each or us had a hut, and there were streets and flags, a community gathering place and a lookout point. In retrospect, we had just about everything a real town would have had except taxes.

In another field, there was a huge tree that had so many branches each of us could claim a spot. We hammered up a few boards to make a ladder and a few more to make our forts. I called it the Mother Tree because it supported all of us, and because there were saplings growing up all around her.

But urban sprawl came knocking on our door one day, and before nightfall, it seemed, our entire world had changed.

The earth movers leveled off the thickets and cut down the trees. Fields were trenched for sewer lines and water mains. And the pavers put in curbs and sidewalks where there had been dirt paths. Houses and apartment buildings went up like so many Monopoly pieces, and a church and two schools were built within blocks of my home. My playground had been transformed, and it had happened overnight.

Seemed like a shame.

And new and strange people moved in, too. People from the city. There were kids my age, but they were kids who had grown up in alleys and stairwells and on treeless streets. They were kids who thought an open field was a 20-foot lot between two-story tenements. And they were tough.

I remember going over to check out a new playground the developers had built for their instant community. It wasn't far from where the Mother Tree once stood.

A group of kids was hanging around. They called me over.

“Wanna join our gang?” the oldest boy asked. Now back then, the word “gang” had a different connotation. In my mind, it was closer to Spanky than it was to the Disciples or Crips. I figured this was a way to make some new friends and take away the sting of losing my old playing fields. So I said sure.

And then they told me about the initiation.


“Sure, it’s easy,” the big kid said. “We’ve all done it.”

All I had to do was sit on the merry-go-round and face outward with by arms hooked around the bar behind me. Sounded easy enough. I agreed.

So these kids started me going. Round and round and round, faster and faster. These kids spun me round and round and my arms started to ache and I got dizzy. Round and round, faster and faster. My butt started to slip and faster and faster they spun me, and my head flopped forward and my stomach ached. And all the while these kids were laughing and howling and then everything went silent.

I flew off through the air ...

I think the realization hit me just before the ground did. It was that there is a fundamental difference between them and me. There was a difference between city and country. And when you force one upon the other, someone's bound to eat dirt.

They were laughing and howling as I picked myself up. There was no gang, just a bunch of bullies. I regathered my wits, but I didn't say anything. I just headed home, trying to hold my dizzy head high.

I was right about that driver, the one behind the wheel of the step van. He didn't see her until it was too late. They intersected like vectors of fate. She crossed right in front of him, and he caught her with the right side of the bumper. She flew about 20 feet in the air, twirling silently through space.

She landed in the grass and lay there twitching for a while. Then she was still.  The driver and I stood there shaking our heads. He lit a cigarette. His hands were shaking.

He went to call someone, and I stayed a while and wondered why a big beautiful doe like this got hit on a virtually empty highway. And I wondered, too, how she'd ended up here, between the train yard and a mobile home court. In the middle of civilization, a step removed from the wild.

Seemed like a shame.

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx