childhood ends when the bouncy horse leaves

Each summer, our small neighborhood in Franklin, Tennessee would hold a huge garage sale.  A thrifty shopper could move from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac and paw through cardboard boxes of Paula Abdul cassette tapes and browse card tables stacked with mismatched dinnerware.

Garage sale weekend was an Epic Event in my childhood, and the year I was old enough to participate as a vendor was a sort of suburban coming-of-age.  The centerpiece of my small boutique was a plastic horse, about three feet high, molded mid-stride.  It was mounted on four coils of spring that invited young riders to bounce in the rhythm of a steady canter, imagining a cactus-spotted West or a series of pristine, whitewashed jumps and a panel of dressage judges.  The springs had gone a bit rusty over the years but remained tight enough to pinch small fingers into a purple bruise.

Toward the end of the day, an older man strolled into the garage and decided the horse would be a perfect gift for his granddaughter, and for a brief, heady moment I felt every bit the shrewd negotiator.  I responded to the potential buyer’s offer of six dollars with nine and, at the end of a taught series of offers and counter-offers, I had argued him up to eight.  Eight dollars!  I fantasized about new paperbacks and stuffed animals — purchases that, inevitably, would end up at a future garage sale — as he took a few creased bills out of his wallet, stuffed them into the pickle jar I was using to amass my profits, and hoisted the bounce horse up by its smooth, plastic underbelly.

As he loaded my trusty steed into the back of his station wagon, I couldn’t exactly understand that strange tightness in my chest.  Something heavy was slipping between my lungs, cold and quick like water off a pane of glass.

This fall, when I teach academic writing and argument at Rice, I’m asking my students to begin the semester by writing about a moment when their childhood ended, in whole or in part.  If I were an incoming freshman, I might write about the bouncy horse.  Standing in the garage in Franklin, I didn’t understand the mounting panic I felt as that man drove away — a panic that wasn’t eased at all by the promise of eight dollars.  I now understand it a little better.  What I understood as my history was comprised in part of a series of objects, and giving them away piecemeal was painful.  I felt the same way, years later, when I traded in my Taurus, the car I had driven throughout high school.  I was abandoning something important.

Later that night, sitting at the dinner table, my dad assured me that the bouncy horse would be loved and appreciated by its new owner.  I imagined a four-year-old carefully grooming its plastic pelt, offering a warm bag of oats.

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