Obscene Chapel

Danny Long

“Why do you spend so much time over there?” Mom asked over the phone as I prepared to leave for Eric’s. “You’re there every day. Tell me the truth, Danny. What can you do there that you can’t do at our house?” It was a Friday morning in the early summer of 1998. I, nearly fourteen at the time, was standing in the kitchen, damp with sweat. Our house, a ranch-style in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, was apparently allergic to air-conditioning, like many houses in Fort Collins, Colorado, where the cool, dry summer evenings strengthened homeowners’ resolve against the intense daytime sun.

“Nothing,” I lied. “I just like it over there. We watch movies and play video games and stuff.”

She sighed. I imagined her shoulders drooping, as if she saw no point in following her motherly instincts and pressing me further. Or perhaps she thought that ignorance was, well, not bliss, but as close to it as she could get. “Just do me a favor, all right? Mow the lawn this afternoon.”


The guilt from this admittedly mild lie—"Nothing"—is still with me, deep down in my stomach, a bezoar of regret. Lying has always done this to me, which is too bad, since I’m pretty good at it. But I had no choice. I couldn’t tell Mom the truth. Ours was a lovely home, a wonderful place to grow up, although a bit like a Chuck E. Cheese’s after my stepdad, Ty, and his three kids moved in, turning a family of three—my mom, my sister, and me—into a family of seven. Yet in the way of mischief it offered little. Not like Eric’s. His house, the house of the Kings, where he lived with his father, Art (King, Arthur), was that magical place where teenage boys could give the scenarios cooked up in their imaginations, no matter how reckless, a pulse.

The contrast between the two households was stark. At my house, Mom confiscated the only throwing knife I ever owned, a Black Widow a friend gave me for my eleventh birthday. At Eric’s, we flung freshly sharpened blades at a wooden plank wedged between two windows in his basement bedroom. Eric once sent a knife clean through one of those windows, which went unrepaired for months, unless you count the duct tape and Saran Wrap. At my house, Mom and Ty forbade BB guns, after a BB I had shot ricocheted off the concrete slab in our backyard and chipped the neighbors’ bedroom window. At Eric’s, we fired BB after BB at strips of plastic foam, glass jars, tin cans, and, eventually, each other. The way I saw it, I belonged at Eric’s house because caution didn’t. We never planned things out in advance, never reasoned through our decisions, never considered the consequences of our actions. If we had an idea, we pursued it—simple as that.

We even had the freedom to invent, our most memorable invention being a cannon we cobbled together by soldering the ignition apparatus of a toy rocket launcher to a PVC pipe the length and width of a cigar. We’d stuff the pipe like a musket, with gunpowder (which Eric had made by grinding down model-rocket engines) and a marble, point it at cantaloupes, watermelons, milk jugs—basically anything full of liquid and vulnerable to high-velocity balls of glass—and press the red button, which in this case was yellow. This would release a surge of sparks into the gunpowder, triggering a blast that would send the marble flying. As with the throwing knives, our aim was only theoretical, and Eric’s backyard plant life suffered as a result. Trees were permanently scarred, bushes torn asunder, flowers blown apart, bursting like fireworks, showering the grass in pinks and reds and purples. Our clever engineering transformed the Kings’ backyard, a lush Eden when Eric and Art moved in, into that yard, the one neighbors look at and say, “What the hell goes on over there?”

Our friend Pat, a gangly kid with blond hair who, like me, spent most of his early teens at Eric’s, once crammed so much powder into the pipe that the marble—reaching a speed theretofore unknown to marble-kind—snapped a wooden slat in a fence clean in half. The explosion echoed for what seemed like minutes, swallowing all other neighborhood sounds—birds, cars, bicycles, opening and closing garage doors, giggling children. All was quiet but the rippling reverberations and the ringing in our ears. The whole city must have heard our cannon go off, we thought, and this thought scared us so much that we hid the smoldering object in the crawl space, locked the front and back doors, drew the curtains, ignored the potent scent of gunpowder lingering on our clothes, and sat motionless for an hour, glancing at each other every few seconds with large, wet eyes.

Looking back on these exploits, I’m astonished, and more than a little embarrassed, to notice how many of them involved some crude form of weaponry. I’m astonished because we weren’t violent kids. Quite the opposite, in fact. Nor were we troublemakers. Nor were we keen on looking or feeling strong or powerful or clever. We simply loved to bring our ideas to life—to imagine a cannon and then actually create it and hold it in our hands, even use it. The creative process and its challenges inspired us. So we concocted scheme after scheme to test our limits, to see how far we could go until our dreams pushed back. Sometimes these schemes were disappointing, like the time we dismantled and reassembled Art’s bike and found that, once we’d finished, we had a handful of forgotten nuts and bolts. “Where does that one go?” “You mean you don’t know?” Other times they were successful to the point of hyperbole, something to which the broken slat would have borne testimony, had the rogue marble only maimed it instead of finishing it off entirely.

The slat belonged to a fence that separated the Kings’ backyard from the backyard of a family I’ll call the Spotlesses, a family who shared little to nothing with Eric and his father. Indeed, one of the most bewildering details of the period immediately following the cannon’s roar was the silence of the Spotlesses, who, with the exception of one member, generally preferred a solid over a dotted line between them and the ne’er-do-wells next door. Any passerby could glean as much from a quick curbside glance. Eric and Art lived in a dark-gray split-level home topped with black shingles. It had three large, yawning windows on its facade, two upstairs and one down, their blinds nearly always three-quarters of the way closed, like sleepy eyelids. Wild juniper bushes full of spiders and bees and probably garter snakes framed the narrow, crack-veined driveway, their unbridled limbs reaching out and obstructing the jagged, undulating concrete path to the front door, clutching at comers and goers. The Spotlesses, on the other hand, lived in a white bungalow with green trim and shutters, its front lawn and bushes neatly manicured, its driveway smooth and unblemished. Even the family members themselves were nuclear almost to the point of fakery, if not nausea: a mom and dad I never met; a daughter, Lauren, who was in my grade; and a little boy named Spencer.

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