Near our house in Woodland Hills was Pierce Community College. It was a roaming hill of a place: agriculturally and animal friendly. Horses had stables, pigs had pens, cows milled about in dirt fields off of De Soto Blvd. Before developers prematurely bulldozed it over, there was a barn-like structure that served as a farmer’s market of sorts for the surrounding crops. In October, it hosted hay rides and a pumpkin patch. In July, we’d park the truck next to the defunct train tracks and watch fireworks launched from the inside of the football stadium, our backs propped against ice chests filled with beer and Capri Suns. The setting drastically changed a few years ago when all of the land was sold and a mountain of sage and burnt orange apartment complexes were lodged into the hills. But back when I was younger it was reminiscent of a time when American children still had home-ec and shop class in high school. For Christ’s sake, I learned how to churn butter there once.
Each summer my brother and I were enrolled in a series of different organized activities there. I took gymnastics a few years. Diving was something I dabbled in until the 3 meter board actually began to frighten me; it was that summer that my sense of immortality began to erode.
Once a week I would buy a new round pack of peppermint Certs from the vending machine in the hallway next to the sloping lawn, the grass turning a lesser shade of green with each passing day of summer. I would tear into the copper and blue paper, pop one in my mouth releasing a rush of chemical created cool. My mouth felt like the inside of an ice box. My cheeks were hot and sweaty. The few air conditioners that actually existed on campus banged on and off noisily in an otherwise quiet place. The heat hung around in the oppressive stillness. But that was summer and it was good.
There were a few places to take refuge from the often 100 degree temperatures. Woodland Hills is typically the place you hear about on the local news channel when the white-smiled weatherman gleefully announces the “Record Heat” list. Sometimes I would walk through sea foam green doors into the gymnasium when no one was in there. The lights would be off and the huge space covered in light gray darkness. A fine layer of grit trecked in by sneakers and the breeze rested on the birch-colored wood floors. I would sit and listen to nothing.
My brother routinely signed up for The Brahama Bull Baseball Camp. This was the part I loved about having a brother: it was my opportunity, my excuse, my fufilled longing to get closer to members of the opposite sex. In my head I would collect them like stickers and attach a select few on my heart. Of course I never talked to any of them, but I prayed for foul balls that I could run and throw back over the fence to them.
One day, in the middle of my diving class, my mom came rushing in to get me. It was too early. Something had to have been wrong. Something happened to Phil. I pulled a towel around me and we walked past the parking lot and past the tennis courts, water still dripping from my hair, turning lukewarm in the summer air and running down my back.
Before we made it around the chain-link gates to the baseball fields my brother came into view, being hurried our direction by one of the counselors. His face was beet-red and covered in dirt and tears. He wasn’t looking at us or the way ahead. He wailed away, staring into his open hand. There, in his right palm, were his two front teeth.
He was beyond consoling and I was too young to know what that even was. He looked up at my mom and I. There was a giant gap in his smile, a gap bigger than two teeth. A third tooth had been lost in the grass. Someone kept yelling that we needed to get his teeth in milk if we wanted to save them. They were cracked and damaged, the long roots still attached. It was horrifying. Phil had been standing on the line near third base, with his back to home plate. He wasn’t playing. He wasn’t wearing a glove. He was just talking to his friends. When he heard the ball connect with a bat, he turned to see where the ball had gone. And when he did, the bat a boy had so negligently let go of mid-swing flew directly into his face.
They were able to save his real teeth for awhile, until his body rejected them. The years following consisted of consultations with dentists, a won legal battle with the college, retainers with fake teeth. From age 7 on, Phil never smiled the same again. His new smile resembled something of a slightly agreeable smirk, covering whatever new replicas of teeth he had at that moment. I always harbored a secret loathing of whatever kid did this to my brother. I so angry that someone could rob the ease at which a child expressed joy or friendliness, how that accident changed the way in which he interacted with life.