You thought my fear of bridges as ridiculous as my fear of tunnels. How else could we cross relatively small bodies of water, you asked me. So as we drove the ugly trough of white concrete that bulged above the Choctawhatchee Bay, I stared straight ahead to the shore and focused on singing along with Sheryl Crow.

I never remember much about driving to Florida, but I remember that bay, that bridge, and the Tom Thumb at the crossroads.

You said you loved my voice, loved to hear me sing, and that I missed my calling as a country music singer/songwriter. I reminded you of my opinion of most country music and told you that you were full of shit. You laughed, but I was still afraid that any moment the bridge would give way and your car would drop forty feet into the swamp. I lit a cigarette the moment the wheels touched asphalt again and smoked in celebration of surviving another trip over water.

Cheap cheap smokes, back then when I was young. I had my purple Bic, the last of a quickly vanishing breed of non-childproof lighters. Adjustable flame and see-through plastic. When it finally ran out of fluid, I tried to open it to refill it. The plastic cracked and fell apart in my hands.

You said it wouldn’t be much longer before we were in San Destin and inside a house of strangers to me. With only you for a liaison. I was as afraid of that house as I was of the bridge.

It rained every day but even so, I went out on the beach, fully dressed because it was still too cold for swimming. In the drizzle, I danced and sang in my head.

You made me feel things I’d never felt. Cute in a skirt. Protected, sheltered, and yet afraid at the same time. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t intentional. Once the fear connects itself to the pain, it’s hard to ignore. It’s hard to shut it down and move on. I had to shut it down and move on every time you touched me and looked at me that way.

I was young, and I didn’t know any better, and I should have. It isn’t all your fault. Like with so many other things, I didn’t know when to stop, to say “Enough,” until it was well beyond the point. The fear of being without you matched the fear of being with you. The fear ate up everything until there was nothing left. Then, one day, the fear was gone, too.

I’m okay with bridges now, as long as I can see the other shore. I can see a way out. I still can’t abide tunnels.

Bus Rides

We always sat together for the bus ride home. The two players who bridged the boy-girl gap, but not the only two who practiced together. At that age, I felt it was a measure of myself that a boy found me tough enough to be a real competitor.

You were my friend, too, for that spring. We had English together and sat side-by-side there as well, but it is the bus rides I remember. Ten girls and ten boys on a sketchy school bus, rumbling from the match back to school, back to the school parking lot where I would get in my failing Volvo and you would get in your failing Mercedes. Yuppie mothers’ hand-me-downs. But the bus rides.
Cold evenings, just after sunset, but I never put on my leggings. In the dark, next to each other, our thighs and shoulders touching even though there was room enough for them not to.
I was so sweet, so nervous, so unsure of what or who you wanted. There were two girls who vied for your affection, your attention, but I was the one who had it. For that spring.

So young, so green. Our hands touching, your pinky sliding over mine. Chill bumps on my arm. My heart lurching when your warm palm slid over my hand and gripped it for the first time. I didn’t look at you. I just sat there, touching you – hand, shoulder, thigh. Sometimes we talked. Most times, we sat there and just looked at each other. Every week. I remember the night I played in sleet, and the teams stayed so late that it was full dark and close to my bedtime when we got on the bus. I fell asleep standing in a Taco Bell. When we got back on the bus, you told me to put my head on your shoulder, and I fell asleep against you. When we got back, you woke me. You rubbed my cheek and squeezed our joined hands.

There was never pressure, just affection. We never even kissed. We were friends who cuddled, until one of your girlfriends decided we shouldn’t. After that spring, we didn’t. We didn’t even talk anymore.

Chris

I haven’t talked to her in eight years. What do you say to someone after they tell you they don’t even know you anymore? I think it’s good-bye. We never said good-bye, but we let go.

I see her occasionally. Images only. Her sister and I are Facebook friends, so she shows up in family celebration photos. Untagged. I was looking at one the other day and caught the side of a face, a swatch of her dark hair, a hand holding a camera. I studied the hand. No, not her.

Her fingers would be chewed – the nails, the cuticles. She gnawed them until they bled. I never understood how she could stand to do that to the skin, the very delicate skin on top of the finger, right below the nail. At any given time, at least three of her fingers would be wrapped in bandages. She tried quitting. Tried smoking instead. Didn’t work. Always went back to the fingers.

I’m always excited to catch glimpses of her, to see what she looks like now, what sort of woman she became on the surface. But, I know this photo isn’t of her because I know her, always have.

I wonder if she wonders who I am now. I wonder if she wonders if I still claw my skin. I wonder if she ever noticed that I did.

I Learned A Lot About Myself From A Dead Guy

As I teacher, I try to learn from my experiences.  At times, the lessons are so blatant that I take immediate pause and think, “This is a teaching moment.  What have I learned here?”

For example, when you’re fourteen and walking down The Strip in Panama City Beach, you don’t hitchhike, no matter how sore your feet are, especially when the offer is from a carload of forty-something, mostly toothless men in a rusted-out Ford Crown Vic.  You absolutely do not trust your brother when he tells you to stick the end of the radio adapter plug to your tongue right after he’s plugged it in the wall, and you don’t let yourself be alone in the same room with a man that you know beats his girlfriend (because you might do something rash like stab him with your pocket bottle opener).

However, other times, the lesson is more subtle, something you come to hours, days, or years after the event.  With that in mind…

Several years ago, I lived in an upstairs apartment of a large complex. On a Sunday, around three in the afternoon, and as per my weekly routine, Fluffy and I were writing our grocery list to head out for our weekly run. He grabbed our bags; I grabbed my purse.  When I opened the door, I heard: “Oh God.  Oh, dear sweet Jesus.  Oh, somebody help me.  Jesus help me.  I think he’s dead.  He’s dead!”

I’m a moderately friendly neighbor.  I don’t always know names, but I know faces.  I wave or speak, pet dogs, and gripe about the weather, so I knew this voice.  It was my redheaded diagonally downstairs neighbor.  She was outside going into hysterics.  I sighed and looked out around the complex.  No one, and I mean no one was outside on this beautiful sunny Sunday.  No kids, no adults, no college kids.  No one.

To Fluffy, I said, “No one else is going to help her.”  He shrugged, and we went downstairs.

When she saw us, she grabbed my arm and begged us for help.  “I’ve already called my brother. I’m on the phone with 911.”  When Red gave me her cell phone, the operator asked me to go inside and check the body of her boyfriend.

That is when I saw my first dead person who wasn’t all prettied up in a casket.

He was face-down on the carpet in the nebulous “no-room” space between the kitchen, dining area, and living area.  His arm was outstretched with a piece of hard candy, a pink Jolly Rancher, just beyond his fingertips.  Their golden retriever mix was going ape shit, racing around the room, barking at us, at her, at the dead boyfriend.  The operator told me to have her put the dog in another room and then roll him over for further assessment.

When Red grabbed his arm, she squealed and began hyperventilating.  Fluffy, cool and calm as always, bent down and helped her heave her boyfriend – a heavyset man – onto his back.  He was purple, swollen, bloated, and leaky.  Red squealed again and jumped back.

To the operator, I said, “Ma’am, he’s purple.  It looks like he’s been dead a while.”

She said, “I can talk you through CPR.”

My automatic response was, “No!”  The guy was purple.  His lips were blue and swollen.  All of him was swollen.

Fluffy knows CPR, but when I asked if he would do it, he shook his head at me.  “I’m sorry, but this guy is dead dead.  I’m not doing CPR on him.”

At this point, Red launched into full panic mode.  She was too upset to try, not that I think she would’ve.  I walked back outside, still on her phone, and I heard the sirens of the ambulance.  Moments before it arrived, her brother did.  I gladly handed him the phone, got myself and Fluffy into my car, and drove to the grocery store.  In the parking lot of Publix, the adrenaline wore off.  I had the shakes for a solid half hour.

Later, we returned to the complex to find it crawling with police, paramedics, and gawkers.  People were actually sitting outside their apartments in lawn chairs watching all the goings-on.  “Where were they when she was screaming for help?” I asked.  “No one to be seen for miles until all the lights and sirens come.”  I was as sick and disgusted by the living as I was by the dead guy.

Red was out on her porch with her mother and brother, and she got up to thank us for trying to help and trying to calm her down.  “They said he died while I was at work, probably not long after I left.  We were going to get married this summer.”  I gave her a hug.

While unloading groceries, I said to Fluffy, “Just so you know, I’m going to be clingy for the next few days.”

The next morning, as I was getting ready for work, the lesson came to me: when someone is screaming for help, I will try to help…to an extent.  I could never give CPR to a complete stranger.  I just don’t have it in me to do something like that for the corpse of someone I don’t love.  I feel a little bad about that, but now I know.

Current-day Job

I have a cousin who has an awful life. She has no job. She lives in horrible conditions. Her landlord refuses to replace her broken water heater or fix the holes in her floors. Her van breaks down all the time. Her lawn mower breaks down all the time. Everything breaks down all the time, and she fixes it all herself as best as she can because she likes to learn how things work. That’s good because she has no money for anything. She has two daughters, both over the age of 20. One is in the Army, stationed somewhere like Texas, and has two babies. The other (and the reason she can’t keep a job) has a strange genetic disorder that kills the male babies and leaves the female babies in a state similar to severe cerebral palsy. My cousin refuses to put her in a home, so she does her best to take care of her daughter herself. Add to this, until this summer, my cousin’s husband couldn’t walk. He had dementia and brittle bones, heart failure and emphysema from asbestos. He broke his legs every time he tried to get up and walk. Hospitals would give him minimal care and then send him home in a cab that my cousin couldn’t afford. A cab and he couldn’t walk! This summer, he passed away. So far this week, the bathtub has broken, a random rooster showed up at her house, terrorized her dogs, and wouldn’t leave, and a wasp nest fell on her head and she was stung over 30 times. It’s just like the original story of Job (the one before someone went back and added that it was all a test and that his losses were restored). Nothing but pain and loss.

So…today, I was feeling really upset about a life goal I have that looks unattainable, but then I read about Danette’s life. My life is nowhere near that, so I just need to put on my big girl pants and grow up. I need to be more thankful for the dreams I have realized because many people never get to see any of their dreams come true.

White Noise

I stood at the pump, smelling the rain come from the west. Big fat rain, the kind that you can walk in and not get wet. It’s been an odd summer, too wet then too dry.  Ancient oaks are falling, and I’m filling my gas tank on my way to buy groceries.

I stood at the pump, hearing snippets of someone’s phone conversation as it drifted from the store’s front to me. I wondered if there were times that my mother went to church just because she needed a break from my brother and me, because she needed adult interaction.

I stood at the pump, calculating just how long it had been since I’d made a joyful noise unto anyone. The baby used to cry every time I sang Mozart’s piano sonata in A minor k331. It’s what I sang to him at night when he was in the hospital with his liver malfunction. After the first few bars, his eyes would fill and his lip quivered. Sometimes, I would sing it just to make myself laugh, and that is terrible and cruel.

Some things, usually horrible things, just stay with you.

I stood at the pump, snapping out of my thoughts when it clicked, signalling the tank was full. I declined a car wash, declined a receipt. I got back in the car and cursed at the CD player until it accepted the first mix CD Fluffy ever gave me. Then, I drove on to the grocery store.

The Bird Carver

I sat across his desk from him as he used his soldering gun to burn texture onto wood.  It had changed drastically from the previous day.  It was a rough-cut hunk of white oak, a piece he’d scavenged after lightning killed the eighty-year old tree.  After ten hours of carving, gouging and sanding, the hunk took on the form of a small bird.  Today, he added the feathers.

He wore two sets of glasses – his usual pair and his bifocals.  He peered through both sets, studying his work.  Next to the soldering gun, he had a small gouge, and in a piece of soft pine, he had stuck the legs.  They were made of copper wire that he meticulously cut, twisted, and etched until every crease of “flesh” and the curves of the tiny claws were just so.  He made everything but the eyes.  Those, he ordered from a ceramic eye company.

He spared the book on his desk a look, making sure that the layering was coming along as it should.

“I’m glad you decide to stay another year,” I said.

“My wife wants me to retire so we can take cruises,” he said.  “I suppose I can carve just as well on a boat deck as in this office.”

“At least she won’t make you give that up.”

“Oh no.  She knows a cash cow when she sees one.”  He shook his head, his brow drawn down.  “I used to make all sorts of things and just give them away, and one day she put her foot down and said I should make money off them.  It’s in her blood; she can’t help it.”  He made so much off his carvings that he had to get a business license and report his income to the IRS.  “I think it was when I made a violin for one of the doctor’s children that she insisted I charge for it.”

I blinked deliberately.  “You made a violin?”

“Yes.  I’m going to make a guitar for him,” he gestured to the office next door, “out of the same tree this came from,” he waved the bird.  “It’s his tree, so I’ll give him a discount.”

I shook my head.  “So, what are you feathering today?”

“A youth grosbeak.”

He leaned forward and let me take the bird while he turned the book around for me to see.  One side of the feathering was complete, and I could see exactly how the bird would look once he painted it.  He would spend a day layering, dabbing, and washing color over the body until it was perfect.  Then, he would paint the legs, pop them in, and add the eyes.  When he finished, it would look as though a real grosbeak perched on his pine block –  a perfect replica.  It would go for $200, easily.

“May I look?” I asked, pointing at the book.

“Sure,” he said, taking the bird from me and sliding the book over the desk.  The motion sent a spill of curlicues over the edge of the desk.  “I suppose I’ll be chided for that,” he murmured as he looked down at the mess.

“Well, you have to do something to pass the time until the whistle blows.”

That made him smile.  He liked to compare the job to something blue collar.  He’d been in it for over twenty years but only recently felt pressure to stay in his office a required number of hours every day.  It was just another reason to call it quits.

“We punch our time cards like the sheepdog and coyote,” he said.

When we weren’t working, he carved and I read, or we sat together and talked.  One day we sat outside and watched as a hawk tried to pluck a squirrel from the side of a pine tree.  I was rapt as I watched the tree rat wait until the last possible moment to scoot around the tree, just out of the hawk’s grasp.  The raptor would squawk, fly back, adjust, and fly in again.  We stood watching for so long that we grew bored and went back in the building.

Now, it was too cold to stand outside comfortably.

“I saw a crow dead on the side of the road on my way in this morning,” he said.  “Strange business.  Crows are too intelligent to get killed in the road.”

I looked up from his book on North American bird species.  “I saw something on Discovery about how crows in some city or another would drop nuts into crosswalks and let cars run over them.  They watched for when the people would cross and knew they would be safe to retrieve the nuts.”

“It’s nice to have someone that enjoys learning around this place.”  He grinned at me, and I chuckled.  We were, after all, in a building on a college campus.  “What are you looking for?”

“A particular type of black bird,” I said, turning the book around to him.

“Did it have a breast of burnt orange and a light yellow beak?”

“No, its breast was cream.”

“Oh, then it was a regular blackbird and not an oriole.  Did you kill it?”

“No,” I said, stunned.

“Pity,” he said, picking up the soldering gun.  A curl of smoke and the scent of charring wood filled the office.  “Terrible birds, blackbirds.  They rob bluebird nests.  Did you know?”  I shook my head when he looked up at me.  He nodded.  “They aren’t native.  Some moron thought it was a brilliant idea to bring to America every bird Shakespeare mentioned in a play or poem.  They call them starlings, trying to give a trashy bird a better name.  Kill every one that you can.”