I think it was my dad, actually, who started the idea of making us come inside when the streetlights in the neighborhood came on at dusk. To my shame, he started it and it caught on with all the other parents in the neighborhood as a signal kids to stop playing and come home. There was one particular light — this one — situated where the two main streets in my childhood neighborhood crossed. It was dead center of our known universe, and you could see it almost anywhere you played outside, even when you went down “the hill,” as it was known in among us kids.
“The hill” was where the scrappier kids all lived. It was where this girl Amy’s older sister had shoplifted a box of condoms from the gas station from down the road and we dared each other to unwrap one. It was where this boy Robert threatened to beat up my youngest sister, and the “uphill” kids all marched down and threatened to beat him up if he did. (No “downhill” kid was ever going to mess with us “uphill” ones without paying the price.) At the bottom of the hill was a big field to the next neighborhood, and there were rumors of dead cats littering it. We didn’t go in there. We stayed in the neighborhood for the most part, content with internecine in-fighting, temporary but intense alliances based on video game enthusiasms and pool availability, and epic games of hide-and-seek. But everyone and everything had to stop when the hated streetlight went on.
One day this kid Zach decided to take out the streetlight once and for all. He was a tall, rangy, perpetually dirty kid who had the distinction of being one of the few in our neighborhood who actually went to camp. At camp, Zach had taken up archery and brought the enthusiasm back with him. After he got back for camp he very showily set up a target in his backyard and would work very hard on his archery skills. I remember spending an afternoon admiring the way he squinted as he aimed. Even to this day, I admire a good squint in a man.
Word spread quickly that Zach was going to get rid of the streetlight. All day, everyone chattered and whispered about it: “Zach’s gonna take out the light!” “Zach will shoot that light down forever!” “That light’s gonna die!” Clots of kids started gathering, running up and down the hill, collecting everyone. It took all day and into evening for word to spread and everyone to come together.
Finally we all gathered at the light, staring up at it. It looked down at us almost benevolently as we clustered at its base. Almost all of us were there, waiting. To kill time, I sat on my porch eating a popsicle, enjoying my privileged position unabashedly, since I lived right across the street from the wretched, hated light. But one person was missing: Zach. I ate all the green popsicles as we waited, because oddly, no one knew what time Zach was going to show. We were getting worried; it was going to get dark soon, and where was Zach?
Finally he showed, marching up the hill, a stern look on his young face, his bow and arrows in hand, wearing shorts and flip flops and a big giant HOBY t-shirt. I think we all cheered. It was tremendously exciting. Zach was going to take out our nemesis! With a bow and arrow! How cool was that? It was the first time I ever realized what it meant to be bad-ass. Bad-ass was a bow-and-arrow and a surf t-shirt. Bad-ass was Zach.
Zach got right down to it, in the matter-of-fact way that kids have. He had nine arrows. He stretched his bow, aimed up at the light, squinting in that way I thought was so cute, his mouth scrunched up like he had sucked on a lemon. “Go, Zach!” we all cheered. Then he shot the first arrow: it missed. Second arrow: missed again. Third arrow: missed again. Fourth arrow: missed again. We murmured among ourselves. It was getting dark; we were getting worried. And perhaps a little bored, to tell the truth. The fireflies were all coming out, their little green butt-lights dotting the air around us. My little sisters wanted to catch some for our jar before we had to go in.
Zach took a deep breath, shook out his hand and shrugged his shoulder. “It doesn’t work the same way when you aim up,” he said. But he drew another arrow from his quiver, drew his bow and released the arrow up. Missed again! Arrow six: missed again. We all groaned. We could tell Zach was frustrated, too. “You can do it, Zach!” we all said, trying to encourage him. We even patted him on the back, lending him moral support.
The light just loomed over us, taking it.
I could see that Zach was determined with he picked up his third-to-last arrow. He took a long time aiming, and then released the arrow into the air. It soared…and just nicked the light. We cheered: finally, some progress! Lucky number seven! “Again, again, again!” we chanted, jumping up and down. Little Nicky Hamm peed her pants; she did that when she got hyper about things.
Zach shot another arrow up: it hit the light again, a bit more forcefully this time, bouncing off the glass and knocking back to the ground. We cheered, completely positive that the next arrow — the last arrow — was going to destroy the neighborhood foe.
Zach drew back the bow with his last arrow, squinting even harder in the growing darkness. We had so little time left, and just one arrow. Would we be able to do it? Would we finally defeat the streetlight and its smug glow?
Zach let the arrow fly. It flew up in the air, soaring, hitting the light square in its middle. We could hear it hit the glass, and bounce right off. I remember we all looked up at it, as if we expected it to fall over or something.
It stood there, impassive, silent. And then…it flickered on.
“Noooooooooooo!” we all screamed. Collective agony! Amy from down the hill even screamed, “I hate you!” at it. And poor Zach, he looked so shocked. He threw down the bow and said a bad word.
Deflated and defeated, we all walked away, going back home, grumbling about the whole thing, feeling vaguely ripped off. Zach disappeared down the hill, hanging his head in shame. I crossed the street with my sisters and we filed inside our house, all of us oddly quiet.
My mom was watching TV. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I grumbled. “Nothing at all!”