Among Aliens

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I grew up surrounded by aliens.  They gathered in the street, just like we gathered.  When the hedge apples fell they clunked loudly, heavy as heads, and rolled to a stop along the gutters.  Green orbs with creepy, gnarled features.  They were somehow both wizened-up and puffy, like we imagined shrunken heads would be.  And they were so solid you could injure your foot if you kicked one the wrong way.   A boy up the hill—the one who always had a new cast on another body part—pulled out a pocketknife freckled with rust, telling us the milk of a hedge apple was as sweet and delicious as a coconut’s.  He cradled one in his palm and sliced cleanly to the milky white center.  The fibres gave a wet smack as they pulled apart.  Then the air got cooler, like the knife had released an icy wind that had been trapped inside the hedge apple.

Here, have a bite.  

No way.

C’mon, It’s an apple.   

My cousin from California did try some of the pulp.  I only insisted because I adored him, his brown face and his white teeth and his faded surf t-shirts that smelled of laundry detergent.  His shiny, straight hair that always fell right back into place after he sprinted.  When we looked for fossils in the creek he talked about the ocean.  When we walked along the street he wished he’d brought his skimboard, to try out along the watery gutters.  Ohio was so strange to him that he believed me when I said we ate those gnarly apples.  I smashed one open on the curb, lifted a chunk of wet pulp out to him.  I called it the heart.  I said the heart was the sweetest.  When he gagged and raised his face to me, it was an eerie replica of the fruit: puckered and green, leaking a thin milky trail.    

I dare you, we used to say, hoisting a hedge apple with both hands.  After rain when the worms curved, pink and ripe, in shallow gutter water.  Dare you to bowl dead more worms than me!

In spring we shouted above the bird songs:  Dare you to ride your bike over that hedge apple!   It is one thing to slip and fall over your bicycle.  it is another to find your cheek knocking into mushy, milky pulp that seems to be peeing, or sweating.

Kids would dare each other, too, by subbing in hedge apples for balls.  A long bomb to the head could kill you.  Or you could hit a homer and break both wrists, but it would be worth the amazing sound of the wet-smash, the slime fireworks.  A croquet mallet worked okay, but the lopsided hedge apples didn’t roll very well.  One neighbour boy took a swing at a hedge apple and his father’s golf club snapped instantly and easily, a mere toothpick.  The girl across the street had a tennis racquet with its strings torn open in the middle from a hedge apple, and the effect was of a secret porthole some lucky ball would get to pass through, breaking forever-there barriers.  And how, so changed, would the tennis ball go back into a sealed can afterwards?  How would it do squeezed among others who merely tapped resignedly on entrances, taking them for walls?  I twirled her busted racquet around and around in my hands, wondering.       

Some kids said the hedge apples were radioactive.  That they glowed in the dark.  One night I placed a hedge apple on my bedside table, pushing the book and Aqua Man figure far away from it.  It looked to be glowing a little.  Maybe.  No.  Yes?  I couldn’t sleep.  The hedge apple began to hum.  It emitted a faint chemical smell.  It was like trying to fall asleep with a mess of brains doused in fertilizer on your bedside table.  The other-worldly presence of it, so close to my head, turned my thoughts in strange ways.  What if you cascaded a garbage bag full of hedge apples into someone’s bed and then spread it back up, hammering down the length of the blanket?  What if beneath my bedspread one night rested a whole other spread of slime that waited, in little sucks, like a breathing thing?   Did kids make hedge apples evil, or did hedge apples make kids evil?  At last I got up and carried the hedge apple to my closet.  I buried it beneath a jumble of shoes.  Even back in bed with the closet door snugly shut, I kept staring at the slat beneath it.  At any moment the crack would blast with electric green light.  How completely this little piece of nature could take over the house, starting with my closet.   I imagined my favorite sneakers beside it growing rubbery green warts, their laces wilting into strings of pulp.

One morning some older kids placed a line of hedge apples in the path of our school bus.  Last time I looked, a long scar still streaked the pavement at the spot where the bus used to stop for us.  Seeing the scar I saw again the bus driver’s face, a stark white oval framed inside a black window.  But no expression you would want to frame, that contorted mix of fury and panic.  Time stopped and stretched in the bus’s wild glide.  The hedge apples beneath the wheels seemed to grow muscle and lift the bus in little bounces.  When they broke, their thick sheets of slime steered the bus with stronger force than the wheel.  You could say that for about five seconds the hedge apples drove the bus.  Though no one was hurt, the kids who lined up the hedge apples were made to walk to and from school for a week.   I remember thinking they should have to grip a hedge apple in each hand for the mile walks.  But it was not about the hedge apples.  That is what one adult said.  I thought without saying:  yes it is.  And now, all these years later, I still think that.  I’m so far from a single hedge apple now, but I can clearly see the fissured green surface of one from behind closed eyes.  And my empty open hand feels the craggy weight of a hedge apple so exactly that it droops a little.  I don’t know how a thing so gross and weird and menacing can work its way into your best memories, until it becomes your best memories.  But there it is, and here I am, still thinking about them, still thinking yes.  Yes it was.  It was all about the hedge apples.

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