Marbles

When I was a kid in Maine as soon as the snow melted in March or April the asphalt in front of our ancient school was covered in crudely chalked circles around which bunches of kids crouched over with intense concentration. Marble season. Everyone brought out their pouches–some leather, some knitted, many passed on from their parents or grandparents–full of their prized marbles. Clearies. Cats eyes. Boulders. Some new. Some antique. The hustling was fierce. I was nearly cleaned out my first week. Us out of staters were at a real disadvantage around the downstaters. They played for keeps. Keepsies. But I got better and ended up spring with more marbles than I’d begun. I even won some antique marbles, from the 1800’s. I remember they made a more musical tink when struck by a good, hard shot. It took a while to master such a shot. It was all in the thumb, it had to flick like a spring, quick and hard. Come May and warmer weather the marbles were put away by unspoken agreement and we all went running off in all directions, exploring the woods, picking blueberries, getting into trouble. Come the cold weather, stuck inside again, I practiced my shot. Practiced all the long, long winter. I was gonna be ready for my second marble season. I was going to be as good as any Mainer. Come spring I was going to be a terror on the playground. Instead, just after our second Maine Christmas we moved to New Jersey. I don’t remember anyone playing marbles in New Jersey. Instead there were riots. Just blocks away Camden was burnt out. I figured when we moved back to Maine I’d pull out the marble pouch again. Instead we moved to Massachusetts, out on the outskirts of a small town, with no sidewalks or driveway or anywhere to do any serious marble shooting. It was a long, cold Massachusetts autumn. The moving truck showed up when Dad was at work and mom was at the store. I asked if they could come back when my parents were home. I remember how surprised my folks were that we were moving, the company had forgot to tell us. An early freeze had left the ground rock hard, entombing toys. We moved before the ground thawed and headed back to California. They played marbles in California, played all year long, but not with the feverish intensity there’d been in Maine. All these Maine kids stuck inside all winter suddenly outside basking in fifty degree warmth, playing marbles as if it were life itself. I’ve never again witnessed anything so desperately in earnest. Never experienced anything quite like that competitive fever of marble playing that consumed me for a few weeks in Maine. Every kid in school outside at recess on their knees in the chill spring wind concentrating with an absolute intensity on two tiny little glass spheres, their’s and the one they want so badly to own. A flick of the thumb, the snap of hardened glass striking glass, the cheers and curses–shucks, darn, heck, hell. You’d pick up your hard won marble and hold it up to the light and a little galaxy of blue or pink or green or yellow revealed itself in swirls of cosmic dust and air bubbles like planets. Every marble was like a cosmos. We were hip to the cosmos in Maine. Small towns with a zillion stars overhead. Moonless nights of near total darkness, and on special occasions the northern lights flit across the evening sky like magic. Coming home after dark by the light of fireflies.

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