Cycling Through the Clouds
I was told to go out and play although, in my neighborhood, no one my age was allowed to come out that day. Their families were all busy. My solution was to get on a bike.
After I pedaled around Acredale Park for a while, I headed east on Metzerott Road. At the end, I reached a one lane bridge. I had to walk the bike up the last few steps of the bridge incline because it was too steep to pedal. When I finished, I came out on Route One. The road is known as Baltimore Avenue to some folks but to my parents it was always Route One.
Cars whizzed by along it and on University Boulevard nearby, on Greenbelt Road, and on the other thoroughfares around College Park. The streets were always busy. They had sidewalks alongside them, though. As I regarded the bowling alley, which got boring without money, I vaguely remembered that Vit Babushka lived somewhere in Berwyn Heights. My mother always drove me. But I thought I knew how to find Vit's house on my bike. It became my goal for the day. I was sure I could find Vit wherever he was and get him to play outside.
I knew the direction. I was pretty sure his home wasn't any more than five miles away, maybe eight at most. I would recognize the neighborhoods my mother drove through to get there. So I headed off along Greenbelt Road until I got to a sign saying Berwyn. The sign didn't look quite right. I looked for another that said Riverdale. That was a road I needed. I was pretty sure my mother had taken a shortcut through Berwyn before, though, so I took the right into the Berwyn neighborhood and hoped I'd figure it out.
After a few turns, I got frustrated. The houses had started out seeming familiar but then they became strange. I couldn't find my way back to any right-seeming place. When I tried to take a cut across the development going further east, the road circled back almost all the way around. It didn't lead me to where I'd thought at all. The suburban landscape was turning out to be a maze of small switchbacks and streets ending in identical-looking cul-de-sacs.
At some point in my drive, I noticed a boy playing alone in his yard. He was about nine. I was nine, too. He watched me cycling from behind his backyard fence. A few minutes later, he watched me pedal by him again.
The third time I showed up, he came out from behind the beam-and-chicken wire fence. I paused my bike and put my left foot down to wait for him.
"What are you doing?" he asked. He had a wide-eyed face. He seemed remarkably unathletic with no muscle tone visible anywhere but he wasn't fat. Mostly, his body looked like he stayed indoors a lot and his hair looked like it grew flat and black in a natural bowl cut.
"Trying to bicycle to Berwyn Heights," I said.
"That’s a long way from here," said the boy. His eyes got even wider.
"Yeah." I slumped a little. I knew I'd wasted a couple miles of effort. But I had hope. I wasn't off course by those miles because I'd gone roughly in a circle.
"Are you gonna go play?"
"Where I'm going? Yeah."
"Why don’t you play here?" He turned and swung his arm toward his back yard. "You’ll have to stay outside, though. My mama don’t let strangers in the house."
I parked my bike next to his backyard fence. We talked for a while and I decided I might as well take a break in his yard. He seemed quiet but friendly. His yard had a standard set of toys in it, all of them too small as if his parents didn’t understand how old he was. He had a doll next to his sandbox. The sandbox had no sand in it. His baseball bat wasn't real, only hollow plastic. He had a baseball glove but it was tiny, meant for a first-grader.
We played for a long time anyway, mostly games that didn't need toys like freeze tag, hide and go seek, marco polo, tic tac toe drawn in the dirt, and others we made up like long-jumping contests. The other boy moved slowly. He managed to seem lazy even while jumping. He got tired fast, too.
After an hour or so, we got to lunchtime. Sure enough, like the boy had said, his mother wouldn’t let me in to eat. She wouldn't even come to the screen door. She wouldn’t fix food for me. And she wouldn’t leave the house to meet me in the yard because I was a stranger. I hadn't ever met an adult quite like her except I wasn't sure I'd met her. I'd barely heard her quiet, firm voice from a distance.
"I know how to do it," said the boy. "Stay right here. It’ll take a minute. Don't leave. Please don't leave. I’ll have her make me twice as much for lunch."
I played on his swing set for a little while. I laid down to wait on his side-yard stoop. He came out with a sandwich and two apples. He started on his apple and I ate the rest while he talked.
"My momma is praying," he said. "Do you think there is a God?"
"No, I guess not." The sandwich was dry. It was like a peanut butter and chalk sandwich.
"You’ll go to hell then." He took a bite of his apple. The apples were sort of mushy. He didn't seem to enjoy his much.
"Maybe," I allowed.
"Aren’t you worried? Don’t you believe?"
I shrugged. Sometimes, of course, I wanted to believe. Most of the time, everybody said I was good. I was the best behaved of boys. It would be nice to think I'd be rewarded for being good. But I didn't believe it.
"My grandma is mad," he continued, "because she says there is no heaven, not really, not like she was taught when she was a girl."
"Why is your grandma different?" I asked. It had become plain over these hours that his parents were very religious in a hushed and fervent way.
"When she was little, they said heaven was up in the clouds. But then people could fly. People flew in airplanes."
"They could look down on the clouds. And they didn’t see no angels."
"I hadn’t thought of that," I said. I wouldn't have, either.
"All grandma's brothers and sisters and everyone she knew was mad like her," he said. "The preacher lied to them. There weren't no angels in the clouds."
"Did she really think heaven was in the clouds?"
"Uh huh." His big round eyes seemed entranced by a vision. "She said everyone did. I do, too."
"You do? What about the people who can fly?"
"I don’t know. Maybe flying isn't right." He frowned as he considered his next thought. If flying wasn't right, it would still be hard to stop people flying.
After we finished eating, I asked for a glass of water. I needed it even more than the food. It had been a long morning of cycling and playing.
"Let me see," he said. He headed back in with a sandwich wrapper to throw away. When he came back, though, he said,"Mama won't give me a glass of water for outside. I'm only allowed to drink inside."
"That doesn't make sense."
He raised an eyebrow. He felt he and his mother were very sensible.
"I thought of something while my mama was talking," he allowed after a few seconds. "We have a hose. You can use it."
We struggled to use the hose, though. He had turned it on by himself only once before and he got in trouble for leaving it on. So I did it while enduring constant checking from his watchful eye. Even after I wiped off the nozzle, I found the drink from the hose was bitter. It didn't taste like the stuff at home. There was a lot of liquid ice, though, and that was the main thing. When I ran it for a minute, it was cold.
"Don't have too much," he warned. "You'll get sick."
My grandmother said things like that all the time. I knew to nod and agree but I made sure to feel full of water before I stopped.
We spent the afternoon playing. And fighting.
"You have to let me win because it's my house," he said as he tried to sit on my shoulders and hit me. The argument worked on me for a few seconds. His punches weren't as forceful as slaps from my younger brother. But I got tired of lying there. I rolled him over, grabbed his bowl of hair, and slammed his head into the ground a couple of times.
"Is that enough?" I asked. I let go of his hair.
"Yeah, I guess so." He had been sullen when he started the fight. He seemed fine with losing it, though. "Let's get on the swings again. That was best."
"Want me to push you?"
Later in the afternoon, though, he started to get anxious.
"You have to leave now," he said.
"I suppose so." My parents might worry. Reluctantly, I had to acknowledge how biking home was a good idea. I didn't relish the long trip, though, or the prospect of finding my way to Greenbelt Road again. If I could only find that main road, I'd be fine.
"No, I mean, you have to leave before my father gets home."
Both of his parents didn't want me, then. After I slurped another long drink from the hose, I walked through the gate. I kicked up the stand and hopped on my banana-seat five-speed. Part of me thought it was amusing how the other boy watched me in awe.
As it turned out, though, I ended up back at his house.
"I wondered," he said. He was standing in front of his gate as if he hadn't moved for ten minutes.
"Do you know how to get out of here?" I rested my forehead against the chrome-painted spider handlebars. I'd pedaled another two circles through the neighborhood. "Does your mother?"
"It's mostly just my daddy what knows, I guess."
So I met his father. He pulled up while we were still talking outside the gate.
Although I don’t remember what the man looked like, I recall his concern. In a stern way, he seemed genuinely alarmed that I had come so far from home and gotten lost. His son did most of the talking and he painted me, somewhat unjustly, as a brave and noble figure. His father gave me directions out of the neighborhood and, if I'm remembering correctly, he also followed me in his car for the first turn or two to make sure that I wasn’t getting lost again. Pretty soon I was on Greenbelt Road.
There’s no reason to remember any of this. The day wasn't special. I had other one-time meetings with boys my age. But I do remember. The story the boy told about his grandmother stuck with me.
He had been convinced that everyone once believed heaven was in the clouds. Heaven was angels standing on puffs of wet air. Literally. As I grew older, I tried to rationalize the memory of his grandmother's disappointment. I tried to tell myself almost no one but her believed. After all, it wasn't a popular delusion that showed up in history books. I tried to rationalize it even though I'd met some of my relatives and Pennsylvania and the older ones had told me about angels in the clouds and other beliefs of their generation.
As I grew older still, I realized I should take my relatives' testimonies at face value. They had believed heaven was literally on the upper side of the clouds. Practically everyone had. The boy with his troubled grandmother had been right. It was weird to keep believing it after airplanes got invented but he was a kid.
My own relatives in the Pond and Light families of Pennsylvania had fallen for evangelical movements in their youth. They had believed in the presence of heaven in the clouds. At least one of them had refused to use the telephone (for her whole life) because it was a tool of the devil. A handful of them thought planes were sacrilegious. From them I also heard how, in the generation before, others of my ancestors believed the world would come to an end in 1869, 1872, 1874, and 1881. The world kept not ending but they kept believing.
A lot of Americans, maybe most Americans, believed in angels standing on the upper side of the clouds. It's not a part of history that gets written about. I'd say it's forgotten. Yet we're not far removed from it.