An Interval of Supernatural Insight
A Flash Fiction by Leigh Allison Wilson
(from Out-of-Stock.net, Volume 9, October 2017)
One summer in the 1980s I was briefly a genius. Granted, my grandfather was the kind of man who called everybody a genius or an idiot. And granted, I wasn’t so sure what either word meant. But I was eleven and being something was better than being nothing.
“Jay-zus, Mary and Joseph,” my grandfather crowed one morning. He’d found out at the local OTB that a neighbor had picked the winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, all in a row. “That Armstrong guy is a bloody genius.”
My mother remarked absently that horses were an odd way for grown men to enjoy themselves. “You’d be a genius too, Molly, if you weren’t a facking idiot,” he told her. She dribbled iced tea over his head, cooling him off, something she did with regularity like cutting the lawn.
It was a puzzle to me why my mother (no idiot) had thought it a good idea for her father to live with us. Those were days when everything was a puzzle to me. Fifth grade had grown unpleasant, an old man had moved into our house, kicking me out of my bedroom, my father was gone for good, and my teeth kept falling out.
After school was out in late June my grandfather took to jumping out at me from behind doors and pretending to throttle me. It was his idea of being nice, I think. I didn’t like being pretend-throttled and so I began to roam the neighborhood during the daylight hours, visiting people in a friendly way, asking for ice cream or comic books, and once a piano lesson. I dropped by Mr. Armstrong’s house often to wonder aloud whether he might have any chocolate, and in this way I began to keep a daily betting log for him. Soon I grew very familiar with the names of racehorses and racetracks. Mr. Armstrong called me a “smart” little girl. I was inclined to agree with him.
One hot July evening at supper, my grandfather holding forth on the recently completed races at Saratoga Springs, I suddenly piped up, “Golden Feather in the sixth.” My grandfather stared at me, astonished.
“Jay-zus, Little Molly,” he said, shaking his newspaper, “you’re a genius. A horse named Golden Feather did win the sixth. Gawd, you’re a bloody fortune teller.”
“I am,” I said. Before supper I’d stepped in to see Mr. Armstrong, who had given me his winners to fill in. But it did not seem incumbent upon me to apprise my family of this.
“What the heck?” asked my mother, reading, not really listening, vaguely disturbed by the oddity of hearing my grandfather speak to me.
“Come-ere, girl.” My grandfather headed toward the back of the house, avoiding my mother who sat innocently lifting her tea to her lips.
“You aren’t allowed to strangle me,” I said, following him, and he said “The fack with that,” and in my old bedroom, the two of us sitting on the side of his bed, he drew out the Daily Racing Form. “What do ya like tomorrow, my girl?”
I told him what Mr. Armstrong liked for Saratoga the next day, without mentioning Mr. Armstrong. Ten races, ten picks. I pointed a finger at the names from Armstrong’s list on my grandfather’s racing form. He circled those names with an indelible pen.
Thus began a month-long collaboration with my grandfather that, even at the beginning, on the first day, I knew would be a short-term enterprise. In this—and in nothing else—I was in fact a fortune teller. Every evening Mr. Armstrong gave me his picks and every morning I gave my grandfather my insights. Mr. Armstrong was an ungodly good picker of horses. I was astonishingly good at feigning supernatural insight.
Sometimes it seemed to me that I was a girl jockey, tapping my whip about the flanks of my grandfather who walked each morning to the OTB with the jauntiness of a thoroughbred down to the gate. And we won and won and won. “You little genius, you baby genius,” my grandfather sang. “Your blessed daddy’d be proud of ya.”
My grandfather was of course betting, small sums at first, a dollar a race, and then larger sums as we won most races each day—five, ten, even a twenty sometimes. It is important to say now that Mr. Armstrong never betted. He was a man of no bad habits who once pointed out to me, as I busily transcribed his winners, that the worst habit of all was gambling. Trouble came the day Mr. Armstrong decided that simply picking the winners of races was a bad habit. He was, he said, determined to stop. He offered me a chocolate and shut down his books. Sorry, he said, but come over again any time, my dear.
That night I told my grandfather that picking winners was a bad habit I was determined to stop. His ears twitched like a horse’s. “Say again,” he said, and I did. Rhetoric passed between us, escalating until in the end I swung from my grandfather’s hands like a hanged person. My mother, alarmed by our shouting, came in with her tea and doused him. He let go. After that he did not speak to me for the rest of the summer and well beyond that. I roamed the neighborhood again, the friendly ghost.
When I think of this period of my genius I am struck by how, after my father died, the world suddenly unfurled like a seed for me, full of promise, for a single month. That fall we had a po-faced teacher who “dabbled,” as she said, in poetry. According to her a genius was one who must grow accustomed to loneliness, to misunderstanding, to suffering. I did not believe her, for what she was describing, as far as I was concerned, was not genius but regular life, and I had had my fill of that.
Seeing Someone or Something
In late autumn Ridge Road, the country road where I live, settles into all the shades of brown. I associate the season with a winter coat I owned when I was ten, my second favorite coat of all time. A brown-ish and otherwise humble garment, it contained all of the shades of late autumn in its fabric. I know this to be true because even at ten I was enchanted enough with the coat to hold the fabric up to almost every single dead leaf or stalk I ever saw while wearing it.
Back in November I took a walk down my road on one such brown afternoon. Everything crunched. About halfway down the big hill a brisk wind arrived suddenly, rippling a pile of leaves along the verge in front of me as though somebody were shaking my old winter coat. Revealed on the pavement was a flat chipmunk. Road kill, I thought, and was preparing to move it when the chipmunk sprang up, did a crazy little dance toward me, realized I too was alive, and then dashed into the high grass off the verge. From there it complained angrily in warbler-like chip-notes. I could imagine it shaking its little human-seeming fist within the weeds.
In some ways (but not all ways) November usually appeals to me, because of the shades of color seen at no other time, because of the feeling—as the leaves and undergrowth disappear—of a slate being wiped clean, and because of surprises like that chipmunk. This past November, not so much, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Surprise number one on my walk that day was the chipmunk. Surprise two: I spoke to my neighbors who live at the bottom of the long hill, about a mile away from my house, and they told me they’d “seen something” on Ridge Road.
I like these neighbors and in fact consider their two highly eccentric dogs, Dora and Newman, to be god-dogs of mine. Recently, my neighbors said, “something” took down the bird feeder in their back yard and cleaned it of oiled sunflower seed, carefully and meticulously, as though using a small toothbrush. Nothing was pulled apart and the now empty feeder had been placed on their deck, a hint, perhaps, to refill it soon. The next night they heard the dogs barking, turned on the floodlight out back, and there was a black bear on the deck, looking for the bird feeder they’d put in the garage. Joe grabbed his phone and took a picture. The whole neighborhood has since examined this picture closely: a sad black bear, not so very big, staring baffled and red-eyed into a distance that fades into darkness. The bear looks embarrassed and not a little hungover.
Bear sightings in the area started back in the summer with rumors of people seeing “someone or something” in the very early morning or the very early evening. “Someone or something odd.” In a small town rumors spread quickly. Soon fuzzy pictures appeared online. The rumors appeared to be true—the pictures were so fuzzy the dark shape appeared to be “someone or something” in a twilit landscape. I thought it was possibly a short-ish, round-ish kid in a dark sheet crossing a street or field. Or a small, dark boulder rolled into the middle of a street or field. Or maybe the thumb of someone or something taking the pictures.
We finally got a clear video of an actual bear strolling down an Oswego street not so far from downtown. This downtown bear, according to a DEC guy with whom my neighbors talked, was unlikely to be the bear now on Ridge Road. They like big territories and the bears have been spreading out from the Adirondacks for years now, looking for space. However, the downtown bear in the video also looked sad and embarrassed, lumbering awkwardly, looking nervously over its shoulder at some point above the camera. One wonders if all bears are drinkers, since this one seemed hung-over, too, but of course there are things beyond alcohol capable of producing that expression.
At any rate, although for years I have been light-hearted and exuberant on my Ridge Road excursions, I came to be circumspect on all walks over the extended course of these bear rumors and sightings. There are several reasons for this circumspection, but none of them have to do with being afraid I’d encounter our neighborhood bear, who is welcome here as far as I’m concerned.
One possible reason for it: all fall we began to have hunters in the neighborhood. This December I got a pair of snowshoes in order to enjoy some of the constant lake effect snow we get because of Lake Ontario on our northern border. On my second trip out in the snowshoes, deep in the woods across the street from my house, I heard shotgun blasts, two in quick succession not far from where I stood. I cleared out. Back out of the woods I saw a strange pick-up parked on the roadside. An energy company owns the woods and it’s posted for no hunting and usually the posting is respected. My thinking is that the bear’s existence proved too tempting a lure for the hunters, and they were probably shooting at deer (illegally) having seen no bear.
Meanwhile a danger factor has entered our home equation where it never existed before.
There is also an odd kind of concentration that comes with walking as winter and cold come on, and this too can bring on circumspection. Possibly this has to do with the way you have to tuck your chin against the wind, pull in the drawbridges of your extremities, walk constantly through the fog of your own breath. These things are all boundaries that don’t get drawn in summer.
But mainly the circumspection came, as many of you know, because in May of last year my relationship of thirteen years ended quite abruptly. It is very difficult to let go of such things. Almost every picture of me taken during the past year has surprised an expression on my face that I recognize as that of the black bear’s—sad, embarrassed, a little haunted or hunted, vaguely hung-over. The appearance of the bear only increased this feeling of being hemmed in. My ex-girlfriend had for a couple of years commented that she’d seen “something” that looked like a bear, and I had either paid little attention, or had teased her unmercifully about mistaking dogs for bears. In a profound way I had become blind to what she saw.
For many months after our break-up, through last summer and fall and winter, I knocked around with bear-like awkwardness. I mean this literally, knocking my body into things in my house I’ve never knocked into before, as though I really became blind and some prankster had moved all my furniture an inch to the right.
One dark early morning, going to Dunkin Donuts for my coffee and conversation with friends, I fell flat on my face going up the decking steps to the garage—the first time I’ve ever done that. Another day I walked straight into a large locust tree in my back yard, barking my chin against the trunk of the tree and then, falling, knocking my knee on an exposed root. My massage therapist kept finding dark bruises all over me. She’s a very good person, and I grew afraid she thought I was being abused. “I keep tripping up and down stairs and running into doorways,” I explained earnestly, and there was an awkward silence.
I don’t like saying to people that I have been hurt badly, but I will say it to you: I had been. I spent the summer avidly watching all the wildlife that intersects with Ridge Road, one sighting after another of wild turkeys, deer, opossums, raccoons, snapping turtles, bird after bird after bird, and snakes galore. It seemed as if I could find a tonic for my grief if only I observed the local flora and fauna with enough insight and attentiveness—the very observation, insight and attentiveness I surely must have lacked in the last years of that relationship.
In summer I decided it was time for me to start seeing someone. I made some phone calls to out-of-towners whom I had once thought attractive but hadn’t seen in many years. As it happened, this was another way of knocking into things. The calls resulted in a series of darkly comic conversations, most of which ended in nostalgic remembrance of things past, followed up later by Christmas cards emphasizing loved ones and extended family.
I had been warned about this by friends, warned about the many downsides of dating “too soon,” although I was as heedless of this advice as a thirteen-year-old sneaking out for a forbidden rendezvous. They were right and I was not. In fact, I feel an apology might be necessary to the thirteen-year-old I created in the simile above, since for all I know she would have shown better sense than I did in those phone calls and at one particularly disastrous dinner out where, impossibly, I turned off the lights in the whole restaurant with the back of my head, and then poked my dinner date in the eye when hugging goodbye at the end of the meal, accidentally flicking her contact into the parking lot, never to be found again.
It is now April and spring on Ridge Road. The buds of leaves are fat in the tops of the trees, my forsythia is yellowing, and my sweet, white primroses already embrace our warming upstate New York landscape. And I think I have begun to stop my bear country ways.
For example, I recently acquired my first favorite coat, an astonishingly simple and beautiful coat hand-made on a loom out of very fine yarn by a Massachusetts woman I have come to admire from afar. The coat is mostly black and I might easily look like a bear in it, except that all of the hems are edged by a band of gold so rich that it shines as though sunlight were hitting it all the time, inside, outside, on cloudy days or in the middle of the night. If there is the least glimmer of light, that coat shines, and there has so far always been a glimmer of light.
I haven’t knocked into anything for weeks and weeks.
And yesterday I saw for myself our bear on Ridge Road. We met halfway down the long hill. I must tell you that he did not look haunted or hunted or hung-over, nor did he look sad. He looked a little shy, I’ll admit, and he did not stay long and he did not look back when he left. But he also seemed rather graceful, as though coming upon somebody or something and then leaving were a natural interlude, a moment not to be forgotten, and not at all awkward.
We are in the middle of one of the biggest droughts this area has ever known. You have to go back to 1843 to find a summer when the skies were less forthcoming in upstate New York. Naturally we are lucky here, on the shores of one of the biggest sources of fresh water on the planet, Lake Ontario. But that does not for various reasons inspire confidence during this epic drought. A friend at Dunkin Donuts tells me that he knows for a fact the water table where he lives is at least nine feet below the bottom of his well. He’s been getting water delivered by the truckload, but the trouble is, the thirsty earth guzzles it up before the well can fill. One pitiful aspect of this, he says, is that he now eyes his neighbor over the town line, who has city water, with envy and secret vexation. “What can you do?” he keeps asking, “What can you do?” Gloomy, he holds his coffee cup with both hands, as though hoarding the liquid in it.
When something commonplace disappears, there’s a terrible foreboding that it will never come back again. Early on in this drought season my girlfriend moved out after a lackluster couple of years and, to be blunt, I haven’t had sex in a record long time. I find myself surveying the social horizon with all of the fervent hope of a rainmaker—every promising cloud turns out to be a kite or a plane or a flying saucer. For a certainty my rainmaking skills are dubious, but I have always been hopeful.
One pitiful aspect of being newly single is that you begin to watch with keen interest to see if others are having sex. Here on rural Ridge Road, in spite of the drought, there’s been a lot of funny business going on this summer: the flocks of wild turkeys have crossed and re-crossed the road with their communal broods of eight or ten chicks; the snapping turtles have long since gone down to Rice Creek to lay their eggs; the birds seem to be in a second mating season, sometimes flinging themselves against the glass windows of my house, as if to immolate themselves in their own arms; my baby snake, which moved into the house in March, is now months old and no doubt laying eggs behind the drywall; and I’ve noticed that my next door neighbors have taken to holding hands after almost thirty years of marriage. Everybody is having sex. It’s been difficult not to feel a little glum in the midst of all this provocative activity.
For example, mourning doves are capable of producing up to six broods a year, making them the U.S. native birds with the most prolific sex lives. My spring began with two or three mourning doves whose cooing informed a daily sunrise stroll around the yard with my second cup of coffee. By June there are almost a dozen very young mourning doves jockeying for position along my fence railings. Sometimes on a stroll, with their twenty-four eyes upon me, I feel much as I did back in high school, walking the gauntlet of highly sexed popular girls who lounged around the hallways, eyes sated and judgmental. It is uncomfortable being single in front of these chicks. When the mourning doves fly off, their wings produce a whinnying sound, not unlike derisive laughter.
One very hot day I notice a lone wild turkey walking forlornly up Ridge Road. There have been lone turkeys on my road for as long as I’ve lived here, always males. These lone turkeys are a common sight each summer, a little bedraggled, feathers ruffled or missing, a look of hopelessness in the winking eyes, tittering in soft lunatic tones, sometimes pulling up the rear of a group that ignores them completely, other times affecting a limp for the sake of attention that is never given. I have always called these turkeys Robert. This summer it strikes me with foreboding that I may have been completely off base about these cross-generational Roberts, that I’ve gotten the Roberts all wrong. There may just be one turkey, one Robert, not many. It’s possible that this true solitary has spent the last twenty years, even the last century, brooding in a desultory way around the outskirts of the wildly rich turkey sex life on Ridge Road. This version of Robert, this forever unaccompanied turkey, has in my imagination now become some kind of ageless, gabbling symbol of alienation. Certainly he has never, ever had sex.
I have resolved not to be that turkey. I have an out-of-town friend I’ve known for quite a while, and whom I have found to be attractive. For a while now I’ve been toying with the possibility of calling her. Someone has warned me that this is a “temporary solution”—as though what I really need is a better set of problem-solving skills. Someone else pointed out that this would lead to fraught “rebound” sex—although surely desire isn’t dependent upon the last shot one took in a completely different emotional basketball game. The subtext is always that it’s too soon after the break-up, too soon to venture back into the world. “Too soon, too soon,” coo the surfeited mourning doves, full of good advice they need not take themselves.
If the world must impose droughts, it must also allow for the end of them—or else there’s no need to name them. I have the sneaking suspicion that “too soon” is what the Roberts are always telling themselves. I understand exactly why my friend at Dunkin Donuts held onto his coffee with two hands during a drought. Because it connected him to something he had learned, perhaps too late, that he valued. Because what can you do, having valued, but try to hold onto some version of that valuable thing? Because in the end the connection matters, desire itself matters, hope matters.
And so, of course, I make the call.
I suspect that the majority of humanity hankers after large bodies of water—the great lakes, the oceans. The wide expansive horizons of the great bodies of water invite abstraction, often with a cinematic wind in our faces; the small bodies invite the concrete, often with our shoes getting muddy. I don’t mind getting muddy. I like the smaller bodies: rivers and streams and ponds. One pays attention around them. One finds things to admire and ponder. Small bodies help us contemplate small bodies.
My house is on a ridge and below it there’s a large creek, Rice Creek. I rarely see this creek, though it’s on my own property, because in the summer it’s banked by poison ivy so old the vines are as thick as thighs. In winter—harsh enough on the shore of Lake Ontario that we regularly make national news because of it—I would be unable to find the creek beneath the several feet of snow burying the top of it. But I do see creek creatures all throughout the spring and summer and fall.
There are many many frogs in this domain. For instance, all spring thousands of small peepers join together in a deluge of barbershop quartets and without suspension make a hullabaloo somewhere between the sounds bell ringers make and the sounds cars make when a belt goes bad. Surprisingly, the hullabaloo grows on one, the way novels do. Listen long enough and you cannot sleep without it.
Once I saw a toad hop madly across my back yard toward the creek, chased by a snake that was half in the grass propelling itself and half raised ten inches off the ground the better to see the toad. The uneasy feeling this inspired is one of the reasons I bought a taller car.
Great blue herons, immense birds with serene expressions, have a rookery on the west side of the ridge. Dozens of nests, hundreds of birds. I have never seen a blue heron hurry, nor have I seen one dally. Of all of the creatures I see on the ridge this is the one with whom I most desire a conversation, though if we sat down for coffee together I would insist on a third party, perhaps a monk.
My creek meanders for miles toward the college where I work. About four miles from the house there’s a beautiful park called Fallbrook where I used to take my dogs for walks. On a long ago July day I had my black lab with me on a hike in that park. At some point I realized she wasn’t behind me, so I went back on the trail looking for her. I found her. She’d happened into a bog created by the creek and was up to all four of her armpits in mud, still sinking. I wallowed in there with her, struggling against the ghastly pull of the bog, and together we wrestled ourselves back out and from there walked, as filthy as oil riggers, straight into Rice Creek where a dozen white butterflies floated over our heads while we got clean together in our home creek. Miraculous white butterflies. These are the kinds of things one grows accustomed to near the small bodies: mud and miracles.
I’ve spoken elsewhere about the snapping turtles who, during egg-laying season, hoist themselves at great cost to and from the creek near me, often getting hit by cars because of these journeys. I have helped many a turtle to cross the road, and it’s crucial to know where Rice Creek is located in terms of any given stretch of the tarmac; if you place the turtle on the wrong side, it’ll cross the road again. Too often they seem to depend on the dubious safety of their thick shells. These turtles are among the slowest creatures on the planet who can also be called reckless. Perhaps this summons of theirs must be defined more expansively.
Not so long ago a baby snake, no doubt born in Rice Creek, took up residence in the front bedroom of my house, where my ex-girlfriend had a study. The snake drove her crazy. Although I sympathized, I was curious about this snake. I tried a dozen times to catch it, to pick it up and take it outside. Small, fast and canny, the snake had some game in spite of its infancy. I spent many sessions over several weeks trying to catch it, always when my ex was away from home. Ultimately I never caught it. My ex bought a mail order snake trap that was essentially glue on some cardboard for throwing the snake away. That trap was one of the items left in the house when she took off, the glue having slowed neither the snake nor her. I think now the trap became an objective correlative for whatever long-term unhappiness was about to impel her away. At any rate, she left and the snake remained. For all I know it is still somewhere in the baseboards, grown now into the intelligent, private personality it seemed destined to become. It’s welcome here.
One recent night I dreamt I met up with someone—features were vague, the details sketchy—and at the end of the dream I heard this person say: “You must leave here.” I woke up immediately and sat up in the bed, my body feeling mired by the vivid weight of the dream. The sun rose through my bedroom windows. The indescribable beauty of this ridge lay washed in light and I got up to marvel over it. I felt small. Must I? And why must I leave? I wondered about it.
It seems sometimes that I am moving closer to something important in this place, perhaps toward the personality I was destined to become. I’m about to spend $12,000 to get my driveway re-graded and re-paved so that I can stay in my house on the ridge near Rice Creek throughout the brutal winters to come—a pickup with a plow will then be able to remove the snow in my driveway which it cannot now do. It will be easier. Make no mistake, I would find it very difficult to leave here, this place that I adore.
For all of that, in spite of everything I have told you so far, I know that I would nevertheless leave here. It may not seem so at times, but the world is a large place with many different small bodies in it, and there are many houses, and ridges, and creeks in it, and there are many creatures, and there are many more possible lovers than there are exes, and there are many more miraculous occurrences than there are heartbreaking ones. Destiny is fluid, and love is one of the miracles between small bodies.
For love, yes, yes indeed, I would leave this place to go to another. And that, I think, is possibly why the turtle, though slow, seems reckless.
Trust of an Old Turtle
Today I saw a baby snapping turtle in my yard. I have seen other baby ones and each time I am much struck by their sense of purpose, but more so by what seems to be a serene confidence in what the future holds for them. I suspect good parenting. Here’s a photo of one from several years ago:
But let’s take a look at the parents—it is, after all, Father’s Day. Once I found a very large snapping turtle on my side deck. Moss grew on its back. It was three feet long and at least two feet wide. Things grew out of the moss on its back as if out of a forest floor. It had been stopped by the balusters of the deck railing, but kept pushing itself pointlessly forward, its huge neck thrusting into the air on the other side of the balusters, its head under the illusion of freedom.
Apparently the snapping turtle seeks out water when it is time to lay eggs. My Oswego Township home is on a ridge and below the ridge is a creek—Rice Creek, named after Asa Rice, the last name of my town’s first resident. Around the creek are thousands of wild lilies. The female turtles are called to this creek where they were probably born, and where their offspring will most certainly be born. And the male turtles return often, as though prodigal sons.
But the big turtle trapped on my deck had lost his way. He was incalculably ancient. These turtles can live to be 150 years old. That’s about five full generations of human beings, and a lot of time. 150 years ago the Civil War had been over for one year; Jesse James and his gang robbed their first bank; and Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, was born. It is a long time to be alive on this planet. However, this turtle (whom I think of now as my turtle) could not find his way, although until I met him he’d found his way for so long a forest floor had grown on his back.
I resolved to help him. I put on some thick leather gloves I use for my wood stove. I put on some sturdy shoes. It is worth mentioning that at this time I had been lifting weights for almost 7 years, and hefted 20 pound weights in each hand every other day. My muscles were as strong as they will ever be.
I put a hand on the turtle’s shell and he immediately struck back at me, his enormous jaws snapping. It is a creature that has not been misnamed. He hissed. He snapped. I tried again, putting my hands further back on his shell—this was difficult because it meant most of his weight was forward at an awkward angle. Nevertheless, I was strong enough.
I picked him up. I don’t know what he weighed but it was almost as much as I could lift. All seemed well. I would take him to the forest edge and release him. But there on the deck, away from all safety, he began to thrust his neck and all of his legs toward the ground as though he were a submarine firing missiles. His head and neck disappeared into his shell, then whump, he shot them out toward the ground with all his might. There was a terrible rhythm to this, as though I were practicing a demanding dance step that involved carrying my partner, but this turtle was practicing a felonious assault.
I was reminded of a time my dad, whom I adored, picked me up to make me take a nap. I did not want to take a nap. I became instantly limp, a dead weight. I hung in his arms until he felt secure, and then shot my limbs suddenly toward the ground, and then plummeted out of my dad’s arms and sprained my wrist. Of course, I should have trusted him.
So I was a step ahead of this turtle. I did not drop him. I stood on the deck and let him fling himself toward the ground. They are stubborn creatures, like we are, but we don’t hold a candle to them: they can hold their breath for six months. Just when I thought my strength would give out, the old boy relaxed. He’d had enough of the fight. Against all odds he acceded his will to his own powerlessness. And that’s how I saved him.
So I’m thinking of my turtle today, not the babies. One day, perhaps even this year, I’ll see him again, lumbering toward Rice Creek, wild lilies riding on the moss of his ancient back. Those times I feel myself in the grip of a hard fate, it is worth remembering this turtle with a forest on his back. He had been right to relax in my hands, against all instinct. He had been right to give himself over to whatever might be next. He had been right to trust in the world. As Toni Morrison wrote at the end of Song of Solomon: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
A little over a year ago I became friends with a group of men in my local Dunkin Donuts. It’s a funny turn of events because I am a woman who doesn’t make friends easily, have always counted on one hand my closest friends, and get antsy outside the workplace when I’m expected to show up somewhere every day at a precise time. These are character flaws, make no mistake. Fifteen years ago I took a “test” online that purported to be predictive of depression, and the online results were very concerned about me, so concerned that they suggested I make more friends. For a while I made a desultory attempt to make more friends, started shaking hands with people for no reason, that kind of thing. This netted no one.
But these guys.
When I first met them I was going to work very early—6:30 AM—and wanted a hot coffee to take with me. At the time they were just a group of men in their late sixties who always sat near the door, same time, same guys. One named Tommy began to wish me a good morning every day. He called me “Smiley” and, later on, I asked him why he called me that. He said it was because I’d come in smiling. But the truth is, I came in smiling because I was so happy he was wishing me good morning. It was friendly. It was affectionate. I happened to be in an emotional place where both were very welcome, even from complete strangers.
One day I just sat down with them. I have been sitting or standing with them ever since, from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning like clockwork at the Dunkin Donuts, and then eventually out in the world at various times. Next week, for example, I’m helping them put siding on the back of Bob’s horse barn. This week Tommy helped me thread line and tie a clench knot for the lure on my new fishing rod (bought at Bass Pro where I got a deal because somebody knew somebody). Several months ago I helped Dominic and Bob and Dick bottle homemade raspberry wine in Bob’s cellar. All the guys coached me last month on how to bid at a local auction and I did bid and I got the item: a handmade prototype from around 1931 of a version of Monopoly that is so cool I have to resist playing it and ruining it.
So too are my guys cool. It’s impossible to explain this. They are right wing conservative Republicans and I am a lefty lesbian. They are from a variety of careers—truck driver, pipefitter at a nuke plant, fundraiser for nonprofits—and I am a college professor in creative writing. They know all about tools and other things men seem to know about, and I don’t. They are all retired and I am not.
They are also all married and I am newly single. When Tommy figured this out, he began to point out women at the Dunkin Donuts whom he believed to be also single and whom he thought I might like. Sometimes he pretends to call them over—“Hey, c’mere, girly”—and I have to say, “Goddamnit, Tommy, quit it.” This kind of thing entertains all of us very much. No “girly” has ever come anywhere near us, since clearly we’re assholes. I’ve never enjoyed being an asshole more.
The wives of these guys began to look askance at me: who’s this woman you keep mentioning? Things looked iffy for a while. Two weeks ago, however, we all met—my guys and their wives—at the Cottage Inn, a dive 20 miles away that has a trained chef. All seven of us got along like houses on fire. In fact, we talked a lot about houses on fire. Bob lost his entire collection of baseball cards and Syracuse University memorabilia in a fire, things worth a small fortune. Tommy presented all of us with little baggies of cashews at the end of the meal, as though to seal our good time together. At any rate, the wives don’t have a problem with me any more.
My guys are full of surprises. Dominic, the pipefitter, has had training at the Culinary Institute. His dad owned a restaurant and he grew up hefting huge, heavy loads of dishes or beer kegs which now bother his back. He’s a woodworker, whose accomplishments include a clever wooden device one puts on one’s thumb which can hold a paperback open—he’d noticed everyone had to use two hands and thought it a waste of a hand. Bob, the fundraiser, has golfed with everyone from Tom Selleck to Jim Boeheim, and he has written books, one about the animals he and his wife have shared, and one, a recent one, about his journey from being a Democrat to being a Republican. He looks back on his Democratic self with a kind of bemused wonder. Sometimes this is how he looks at me. Tommy is a master fisherman from Maine whose truck driving took him all over the country east of the Mississippi, but whose fishing brought him here to Oswego, where he met his second wife and settled down. He is the informal mayor, the greeter, the PR person of the Dunkin Donuts, and the unofficial president of our group. If we can’t make it the next morning for coffee, we’re supposed to tell Tommy so nobody worries.
A few months ago Bob’s wife had a heart attack after a long trip. They’d been to a funeral in Illinois and it was winter and all of us were worried about Bob driving that far. Turned out it was his wife, Joyce, we should have been worrying about. After the heart attack Bob was sick—actually ill—with worry. This is a fact: these men couldn’t love their wives any more. Period. There is no more love they could possibly muster within themselves for these women. They adore them. Their hearts are full of them. I admire this so much that I think sometimes it almost makes me sad. I do not pray but I prayed for Bob’s wife. All of us did. When she got to feeling better she came one day and sat with us at the Dunkin Donuts. I don’t believe Bob, or we, could have been any happier, or felt more.
These men have full lives, lives of activity and love, and yet they made room for me at their table. On the surface we have nothing much in common. But the surface of things is exactly where one doesn’t look for friendship or love. I think the heart needs to be big enough for these things. And then again I think all of our hearts are big enough for these things. Perhaps such matters are bigger and more mysterious than all the dark waters into which I now throw lures from the new fishing rod that Tommy threaded for me. This much, however, is certain: I love them fiercely, these guys.