The most mysterious room of my childhood was the shed in the sidelot. When we bought the house in 1979 the shed came along with the property, a little grey building leaning slightly at an angle with a tarpaper roof and a an untreated wood door clearly salvaged from some more ancient shed. A single window set in the back let in a beam of soft sunlight, but even so the shed was never brightly lit, the illumination somehow absorbed by old cobwebs and the dark glass jars left on the shelves by a previous owner. The inside smelled of mildew and motor oil. Wasps built nests in it.
At the age of nine I loved going out to the shed but feared it slightly. Partly I feared the pendulous paper nests that wasps built every summer. What truly attracted and repulsed me were the jars on the shelves and old pieces of equipment leaning in the dim corners (what they were I can't remember now). They bore the stamp of long-gone inhabitants, people who led alien lives. Our family had moved in from the city; we were from away, and even if we'd stayed there for decades we'd still be from away (we stayed ten years). The items in the shed were artefacts in a forgotten museum, and I was both visitor and curator. Eventually my father began to fill up the shed with his from away items: metal flasks of WD 40, a bright red jerry can, a weed whacker, blades for a table saw, racks of two by fours. The museum had been taken over, and only the mildewy smell and wasps remained.
After a year or so my father decided that the grey shed wasn't big enough to contain all the wood that he was storing in it, so he removed the wood and with it built a bigger shed. This one was roomier and cleaner and smelled of treated pine, with a rough splintery floor. The old shed went back to the wasps and the glass jars and the rough dirt floor.
By this time I'd picked up some friends from the neighbourhood - Willie, Dwayne, Derek, Darren. With a name like Aidan only confirming my from away status, I was clearly on the outer edge of the group - but I had the shed. I was like the weird guy at the party whom everybody tolerates because it's his party and he's supplying the venue. We started to spend our afternoons in and around the shed, hanging out in there, staining the seats of our rugby pants when we sat on the floor, safely out the upper-air wasp traffic (they ran the top half of the shed, we ran the bottom). Eventually someone decided that we'd obviously formed a club, and we lacked only a name to make it official.
Willie decided that our club name was to be The Cobras. He said he could even get us shirts with Cobras written on it. This was particularly cool name, I realized, because with a deadly name like The Cobras we were no longer a club - we were a gang. Ain't no one gonna mess with a bunch of ten year olds and their tilting-over shed if you see COBRAS written on the shed door. Especkally when we all step out in our jackets with COBRAS on the back, snazzy gold script with a golden cobra poised to strike emblazoned beneath. We were a long way from smoking, drinking, drugs, crime, cars, girls, sex, and shaving, but the jackets, even a few shirts, were a head start. All we had to do was give Willie two dollars each. Within a week we'd be up to our upturned collars in gang chic.
I had to go through only a small amount of begging for the two dollars. My parents handed over the money with a straight face. They were clearly more worried about me giving money to Willie, who was slightly older than the rest of us, than having a bona fide gang operating out of their sidelot.
About a week after we pooled our money, Willie showed up at the clubhouse with a white 3/4 black sleeve T-shirt, the kind that usually ended with AC/DC or Ozzy Osbourne transfers. Across his front, in blocky blue iron-on letters, ran the single word C O B R A. Willie sat down with us and told us that we were a gang now. He started assigning us various gang-related tasks. Darren was supposed to get some hockey sticks and a net so we could play in the street. His brother Duane was tasked with finding some Playboys for the clubhouse. I was supposed to clean up the shed, get my dad to kill the wasps, and maybe get a dartboard.
"Why don't you get the Playboys?" asked Duane.
"I went and got us the shirts!" Willie snapped.
"There's no room to play darts in here," I said.
"If we're gonna be a gang we need a dartboard in our clubhouse," Willie explained.
"I think my Dad's got a bunch of Playboys," offered Darren.
After a few more days it became clear that we were not getting our Cobras shirts. Nobody would ask about them, but with every afternoon meeting the tension grew, especially since Willie insisted on wearing his C O B R A shirt all the time. The longer it went on the more defensive Willie would get, pressuring us to do more and more of the work and all but daring us to bring up the subject of the shirts. Eventually the B started peeling off, threatening to turn our club into the Coras. Duane grew sullen, staring into the corner as Willie outlined our list of tasks. Darren left early one day and never came back. Those missing shirts were slowly destroying our gang.
I didn't care. As soon as Willie had stepped through the shed door with that Cobra shirt, I recognized the huge gulf between what I had imagined for our gang and what our gang really was - a few kids hanging around a smelly shed getting bullied by a short-tempered con artist. There were no purple jackets with gold emblazoning on the back (where had I gotten that idea?), no great vistas of coolness. There were only a few old Playboys and Mayfairs, which in a fit of guilt I handed over to my parents. My dad spent the afternoon leafing through them at the dining room table.
The gang officially disbanded (disganged?) later that summer when Willie's father Harold bought our shed. He had a plan to put it behind his barn and use it as a smokehouse. He ran a length of heavy chain around the shed, hooked the other end onto his truck and drove. The shed lurched and jumped through the air as if kicked by a great invisible boot. It thumped down on its side and dug into the ground, which was soft and damp from a day or two of rain. Even across the lot I could hear Harold swearing as he gunned the engine. After a few minutes he and Willie showed up with planks to wedge the shed out of the ground. Willlie was still wearing the shirt, which by now said C O R A.
After a lot of grunting and kicking, they had the planks wedged in under the shed. Willie gave me a nonchalant wave as they headed back to the pickup. They pulled away and the shed leapt free again from the planks, airborne and tumbling, wreathed about with bright metal, until it hit the ground once more, alternately bouncing along and digging in like a reluctant dog, until the truck pulled it out of sight. And that was that.