THE BANKS AND ISLANDS OF LIFE
My bones crack and snap now like Rice Crispies. I used to pour
from my bed ten years ago. That was ten years ago. Now my thumbs snap. I put
weight on my left hand and my shoulder attacks the forts. Now I’ve learned to
roll off my butt and swing my legs around. My knees will snap anyway, so I creep
like a steamroller. Why the thumbs crack, I don’t know. These snaps and cracks
infuriate me. I walk across the floor and my ankles wake up Melody. My ankles.
It’s ridiculous. I try to keep my ankles stiff, I try to control them, I try not
to bend them. What do they do? They snap and wake up Melody. But then she goes
back to sleep.
I close the kids’ door like my dad used to close my door.
Before he went to work, Dad would close door after door to protect Macon and me
from light, from the toilet flushing, and from his cereal crunching. But really
(and I realize this now), the quiet protected his solitude.
My house used to be a schoolhouse in the 1800’s, so it tilts
like Boxcar Willie. The door comes toward me on its own and I have to stop it
before it clicks; it’s all timing. It’s a timing thing, really. I look at the
boys first, then leave them to their silence with the sweeping of the door.
Downstairs, I let my legs go. And yet all the snapping is
exhausted, which is once again both frustrating and infuriating.
I’m alone in the kitchen like my dad used to be. I pour my
corn flakes, only they’re not corn flakes now because something better today
made of wheat kernels keeps your bowels intact and contains a surprising amount
of trace minerals.
All I want to do is to sit in a chair in the living room and
not move. I want to just sit there and brace myself with one light on and stare
at this beautiful living room, not caring if I burn one calorie or ten. This
room is an arrangement, a happening, an event consisting of balance, plants,
good pictures, skill, sweat and plenty of thinking from atop a ladder, holding a
(So blended is this living room that no one would ever guess
about the ladder, putty knife and sweat, or that the room is one-hundred and
thirty-one years old. Melody worked hard on this room. I have never been able to
manage any kind of putty. But I did hold the ladder and the putty can,
worshipping Melody’s long hair from the trench of my valley.)
I compare enjoying the living room to reading a good book. No
one knows how it happened. No one knows what writers or putty people must do in
this world to make their projects rise from the dung hill.
Above our sofa is a picture Melody took of me at the Grand
Canyon in 1984 during our trans-America bicycle trip. I had walked a good
distance around and away from Melody that day, then clambered down some rocks
onto a dangerous and stupid ledge that split the canyon. Melody exposed the film
during a rare opportunity.
In the picture, I’m a small black speck. Canyon in the morning
is behind me, with white sky climbing far up into the matting a foot over my
head. A tall tree climbs up the picture, just inside the left matting. The
matting is dark blue and so is the gorging foreground rock that offers me
A scrubby tree invades the rock and leans toward the
risk-taker. The trunk of this tree continues in a dark way, cracking from this
rock. It makes a beautiful arc that shouldn’t be there. The picture is eleven
inches wide and fourteen inches tall. Something happened at the picture: there
are perfect lines and arcs. More lines and arcs appear with scrutiny. There are
lines that meet other lines, that meet other arcs, that meet the leaning tree,
that meet the openings that meet the leaves in the sky.
If morning were what I wanted it to be, dead objects would
live. Chairs in the room would walk, their springs would talk. Foam would
breathe. Furniture would clear its throat while the clock would at last be the
People in books would come alive as well. My friends and
comrades in the volumes would rustle alive. Stage hands would hammer scenes into
scaffolds and everyone would cough. Then there would be boots and dainty shoes
shuffling toward the next scene. Just before the rising of the curtain,
everything would be quiet.
I want to read books, for myself. But I can’t do that because
I’m a husband and a father. Where does the spare time come from? The humidifier
bucket needs dumped two times a day. Bills need paid and the boys discovered the
ocean in a brown seashell while I was at work. The Spooky Old Tree (from the
book club) has also arrived, from the postman. So I think, a) if I dump the
bucket it will be done, b) if I tell the boys about the ocean they will want to
go with me there and c) if I read The Spooky Old Tree to them fourteen times,
they will love me forever.
In the morning, we are on the wall. I will stare and stare at
the family portrait. Maybe I will speak to it.
We may not always be smiling like this. I know that’s a
terrible thought, but I think it. That’s why family portraits are so good.
Families in portraits smile even into the dark and void, when everyone is in
bed. In this way is there hope in family portraits.
We blend in the picture so well because of Melody and the way
she chose our clothes.
Melody is beautiful. Her hair is full and thick and long. I
remember the skirt she wore at the picture, and so do thousands of others. Arty
makes me cry if I look too long.
Aaron is the little one here. He is two here, Arty is four.
Aaron is at the bottom of the picture and is being brave for the yellow duck. He
wants to please this duck by being himself for it. He will get a toy after this
and will make me laugh with it. He makes me laugh now.
The thing about night and the last parts of night is that the
banks of the river fall back into mud. Shells return to the ocean ooze, and some
oceans even retreat to their faraway holes. The nighttime creatures of The
Spooky Old Tree leave or have left their pages for the scent of deep woods.
There is a good, deep river between these woods and caves.
It’s before the dawn, under the stars, protecting people of Earth from the banks
and islands of life.