The Pothole of My Youth
by Kimberly McCoy

From the writer: The original assignment for this essay was to create a personal memoir. I wanted to choose a subject that at first glance may appear absurd but on closer examination reveals itself to be quite universal.

From the editors: McCoy tells the story of her childhood tragedy in a way that brought the editors back to the days of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and neighborhood bike rides. There are no potholes in her writing because McCoy 's use of descriptive imagery and steady transitions makes this piece a smooth ride.

It was one of those summers where you have no idea what day it is, and all the weeks blend together into one giant lump. It was the summer after third grade, a summer marked by two days. The Fourth of July, when adults cram potato salad and watermelon in your mouth. Then they make you sit on curbsides waving miniature flags, while old guys dressed up as old guys in wigs stand on crepe-papered trucks and drive by you at two miles an hour. This day means there is a whole bunch of summer left. The other day of summer is that day you get back from family vacation. You pull into your driveway after an eternity of sitting on a beach gagging on coconut sunscreen, and you are utterly amazed that your house is still standing, and wonder how it got along without you. As you climb out of the car, leaving trails of sand behind you, you realize that this day means the summer is almost gone and you only have a few more days to find the perfect Trapper Keeper for when you have to go back to the "s" word.

My tragic story took place sometime in the middle of these two days, somewhere stuck in the fiery ball that is summer vacation. I had probably eaten lunch at my best friend Leah's house. The food at her house always tasted better than the junk at mine. Maybe I had peanut butter with raspberry jam, the kind with the seeds that get stuck in your teeth, or maybe I had a cheese sandwich drowned in bright yellow mustard from a squeezable bottle. I don't really remember what we ate that day, but I do remember taking off on our bikes with our neon helmets securely fastened on the way to my house where Nickelodeon was available. We raced out of the driveway, making a sharp right, and flew down the street with the help of the slight hill. We dug into our pedals as we passed the mounds of sand left over from the winter snow. The sand was still in the streets, yet snow seemed like centuries ago. We were about to take another right onto the tiny street called Sigsbee Avenue. It served as a small connecting street for my street and Leah's. Sigsbee was home to two driveways on its left and a lot of pear trees on its right. As we turned the corner, around a group of rotting pine trees, we came to a sudden stop.

Ahead of us stood some huge construction-type truck with all sorts of gadgets and levelers. We slowed down to approach the strange machine. Men with dark tans and tight jeans crowded at the end of the street. We smelled something in the air; it was tar. The largest pot-hole in the universe was being covered with a black ooze. We knew what was happening. These men were murdering the pothole of Sigsbee Avenue. They muttered something in their adult secret code about how this is no place for kids like us to play. They began setting up some orange cones, even a few with the little flashy lights. We dumped our bikes in the grass and climbed into a pear tree to wait for them to drive off in their machine.

They were gone. We quietly made our way to the hot sticky tar to stare into its sparkling shiny surface. Disregarding the orange cones and even the blinking reflectors, we stepped into the ooze. At the same time as our sneakers began sinking into the tar it sank into our minds that our pothole had been destroyed forever. We stepped back to dry land and picked up our bikes and walked beside them the rest of the way to my house. Even the mind-numbing drone of Nickelodeon couldn't keep our minds off our great loss. We sat in silence, and I couldn't know for sure what Leah was thinking, but I'm pretty sure it was just about the same thing I was thinking.

Leah's house was in my backyard. I could look out my bedroom window and through the maple trees I could see her back porch. When my window was open I could here the sound of her mother's car backing up in the driveway. We lived pretty close to each other although the whole tin can telephone thing never worked, we blamed it on tree-interference. The first time I saw Leah, sometime during kindergarten, she was staring into my backyard. She had escaped from her house and was pressed against the brown metal fence separating our yards. She had just moved into town and she had no one to play with besides her little brother. I felt her pain. I knew little brothers where no fun at all seeing as I had one myself. So I gave her brother to mine and I decided she could be my best friend. At first Leah had a little trouble dealing with the fence, but with a few short lessons on fence jumping techniques, she was able to make it over with a running start and one arm for support.

I quickly introduced her to the other kids in the neighborhood. We gathered on the little street between hers and mine. Cars almost never drove down the kid-infested street, and even if they tried it was usually too crowded with abandoned bikes or the neighbor's napping dog. So we declared the street ours. It was paved with the smooth kind of pavement, not the kind that makes you vibrate on roller skates like on my street. Sigsbee was lined with about four or five potholes, the last being the most substantial.

The potholes seemed to always be filled with water. Even if it hadn't rained, the neighbors washing their cars and watering their lawns filled our potholes. As we raced our bikes down the street, we made a special effort to ride through each puddle splashing dirty water as far as we could manage. But as we approached the final puddle, the largest of them, we sometimes curved left depending on our guts that day. This puddle, the pothole of all potholes, was the true test of our strength. It probably measured the size of my mother's car, but maybe even a bit longer. When it was filled you never knew which parts were the deepest or which parts were the muddiest. Chunks of road would break off the edge of the pothole and we would throw them into its center. When the water was low, they created stepping stones, but if it was deep enough they became land mines. If you were brave enough to ride your bike through this, you would be taking a chance of getting stuck in mud or hitting a chunk of pavement at just the right angle to cause you to collapse into a puddle of muck. I saw it happen more than once. It wasn't a pretty sight, but it was worth the embarrassment since you had at least made the effort.

The first time I took Leah to the hole, she was in awe. She couldn't see through the muddy water to the bottom, and I wouldn't let her in on how deep it was. I think she thought it went on forever, or that some giant creature would get her if she dared step in. I probably disappointed her by telling her it was only a foot deep on its best days. That's not to say that stepping into a foot of mud won't get your mother angry because from my experiences even half a foot of mud can get your mother yelling about how she is sick and tired of trying to get the mud out of your socks. I finally convinced Leah to step into the puddle, and I knew she loved how the mud stuck to her feet like suction cups by the smile across her face.

It wasn't long before we began pondering the addition of a few fish to our puddle. In the backyard of the people who lived across the street from me was a complicated fish pond made up of a maze of waterways. We would sneak into their yard and stare into the surprising clear water of their man-made pond. Crazy plants lined the edge of the pond. They were probably new plant species created in the little greenhouse further back in their yard. We would sit by the pond debating the consequences of borrowing a few of their fish for our puddle. We knew we would love them more than the mad plant scientist, but in the end we decided that the fish would be happier where they were. They did have all the weird plants to live with, and they could see where they were going; that was something we could not offer them. Besides, you can't hug a fish, so they really aren't all that fun to have around. We moved on to borrowing from a different neighbor. We borrowed a dog, Chelsea. He was a golden retriever who was very huggable and always up for a game of fetch with one of his slimy tennis balls. Chelsea had no problem jumping into the mud in search of his tennis ball; he could just shake off the water even though the dirt always seemed to stick.

Even when the puddle dried up, there was still fun to be had. Even if we couldn't get Chelsea wet, or sail little plastic boats across the water and anchor them next to the islands of broken street the pothole still gave us something to marvel over. When the puddle dried up, the mud would split and crack resembling the far away deserts of National Geographic filmstrips. There wasn't much to actually do when the pothole was in this state, Leah and I would stare and wonder just how the dirt could crack like that.

Although the pothole offered more options in the warmer seasons, in the winter it became an ice-skating rink with no skates required. We glided from one end to the other in our boots, the only problem being the interference of the tiny pavement islands. When we lost the feeling in our toes, we knew that Leah's house was close by, and that if we asked really nicely, her mother would make us real hot cocoa, not just the stuff you mix with hot water.

The Sigsbee pothole was the place to be right up until the terrible day Leah and I witnessed its death. Word quickly spread that the pothole was gone. All of my friends, and now even my little brother and his friends, mourned the loss. We knew that the grown-ups had won. We knew about the parental conspiracy against us, and that they had planned for those men to destroy our friend, even if my mother claimed it was just the town trying to keep the roads in good condition. But if it was just the town doing their job, why did they let the pothole grow for twenty years before covering it?

We were saddened by the death, but we weren't about to just give up, besides I had a bunch more summer left before I was dragged off to the sandy shores of the New England coast for a week of family vacation. We just had to find new ways to turn our white socks to black and new ways to get the dog dirty. I'm not quite sure if we ever really found these new ways, certainly they weren't as good as the pothole. For a while we kept searching. We looked everywhere but slowly and maybe without my own realization, we settled with defeat.

Today when I walk down the street, I try to walk around the puddles. I try to keep my feet dry. I haven't given up everything, I still enjoy watching my mother get upset with me every now and then. She needs to lighten up. Today Sigsbee is still a popular place to be, but I no longer know all the kids' names. Chelsea and his humans moved away about three years ago, but the series of small potholes still exists, there just isn't the grand finale. I don't really talk to Leah much anymore, we both found new friends in high school, our friendship now consists of formulaic greetings when I pass her on the street. I don't waste time with regrets. I don't have dreams of reliving my life on Sigsbee Avenue. The past is gone, plain and simple. I need to be thankful I was there to enjoy it. Everything that was important to me then is somehow with me today. There is still a slight slope where the pothole used to connect to the grass, and if it rains hard enough, a little puddle still forms at the side of the road. If you are ever find yourself on Sigsbee Avenue, look closely at the edge of the shiny, now turning a bit gray pavement, and you will see two sets of footprints.


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