Shelter Island vs Rodeo

Well, the rodeo won out, with Shelter Island viewing coming in on Monday instead of today. We’re going to the Bob Martin Agri Center and I’m hoping the sights and scenes will provide much artistic fodder. Artists and writers must get out of the studio and observe, duh… of course you know that, but for me the real treat is in observing and photographing those who dwell outside my comfort zone.

Horses were a part of my life for many years.

thinking about horses, rodeos, Arkansas, and pecan groves makes me melancholy. I dug through my 1990s writing files and found this:

The Airstream and the Suburban

Part I

At first I considered combining lives I knew with lives I’d imagined.

I would make a kaleidoscope of characters,

mirroring one segment into another,

forming new

images

of

scattered

fragments.

Then I realized the people I made kept turning true;

fiction left the room.

In my twenties,

with toddlers scribbling nonsense papers

attaching them with magnets to refrigerator doors,

I believed the notion of another to be greater

than the reality of myself.

Twenty-four hour days,

three a.m. silent walks to and fro,

self-analysis required infinitesimal retrospect.

A mother,

a wife, a daughter,

a simple life

somehow filled with a sense of grace,

taken for granted.

And it went on for years, quietly taking up space.

I knew it for the short breath that it was.

I felt and mourned it.

Babies learn to walk,

children dress themselves

leave for school,

and even when they don’t take the bus and you drive,

you’ve lost control.

I fought becoming a cliche’.

I would not grieve for their independence,

I would exalt in it.

But still–

I kept them with me as long as I could,

not even allowing kindergarten to take one away.

But I couldn’t slow them down,

make them play My Little Ponies,

Strawberry Shortcake,

or dress up in their grandmother’s pre-war clothing.

They left without me…

We moved from the comfortable womb

grandparents,

aunts and uncles,

friends from high-school and college.

When we started this new thing,

this cliche’ of upwardly moving careers

fast-paced transitions,

we

lost the continuity

became

fragments

ourselves.

Pieces

began

to

fall

from

the carefully glued

puzzles

my father put together.

Everytime we moved I tried to reconstruct the security of those puzzles,

until at last,

they couldn’t

be

whole

any more.

I stopped trying to overcome my father’s leaving me.

His death,

the pivot point for everything lost,

assumed more responsibility than it ever should have.

Part II

I am

a cartoon character

with a thought bubble over my head.

What he says

and what he means,

two distinctly different conversations always go on when I talk to Frank.

He thinks madness aligns him with us,

puts us somehow on his side.

He couldn’t be farther from reality.

“Judicial Ethics Complaint Board…

they thrive on this kind of thing…

got her ideas from Lois who issued one last summer.”

Now I begin listening in earnest.

“Lois claims I hit her,

physically abused her when we were married.

Now she’s written her own letter,

Elizabeth has.

Told the board she could not,

in good conscience,

let me continue in the manner in which I lived my life without reporting it.

Elizabeth says the boys witnessed me hitting Lois.

…claims that she can’t be hypocritical while teaching Emerson and Thoreau to young minds…

they learn ethical behavior,

she wrote that in the complaint.

Accused me of betting with bookies,

using campaign funds to go to the horse races…

I don’t deal with bookies,

I just send bets with friends,

you know that…

and I converted my campaign funds to private income

and paid income tax on them.”

Frank’s voice becomes plaintive,

almost whining.

He thinks I’m sympathetic,

this man who represents all that is despicable,

loathsome

in the universe.

“It’s strange,

the complaint is dated August 11,

that’s the same day I filed against her

for violating the custody agreement

because she wouldn’t let me see Bobby this summer.”

I notice my hand shaking,

the one not holding the phone,

so I start making the bed while I listen to him.

I keep hitting the phone with my chin

and it beeps

as I try to balance it without holding on with my hand.

Anything to keep moving…

I fold clothes after straightening the covers.

I talk to Frank,

“I haven’t even laid eyes on Elizabeth

since two days before Christmas last year.

I can’t tell you anything about her.

I don’t know what she does

or how she spends her time.

Bobby is afraid to talk to us,

he hides from us

even if he’s in the same grocery store.

This town has only 9,000 people

and I never see her…

I don’t even catch a glimpse of her,

let alone talk to her.”

I sensed he wanted some dirt on her, wanted me to tell him she was a drunk or some sort of fallen character. He rambled on about small towns and his dog having puppies…I thought about Elizabeth

and the abyss.

Something in his tone of voice caught my attention again.

“Lucy talked to Tiffany,

you know,

my new wife.

It seems she spoke with Elizabeth recently.

Well, she told Tiffany that when she asked about your mother,

Elizabeth said

‘Flo has outlived her usefulness.’

Lucy,

tough as she is,

couldn’t believe it.

Lucy gets along real good with Tiffany, they talk a lot. A lot more than Elizabeth ever would talk to her.”

I begin loading clothes into the washer.

Trying not to think of Elizabeth

and the abyss.

Take a load from the dryer

I fold,

then

walk to the bedrooms

put the clothes into drawers

that I straighten as I put away.

Phone on my shoulder, neck crooked,

basket on my hip.

Still listening.

And thinking of Elizabeth

and the abyss.

Frank kept on talking for a while longer,

I’d finished listening

way before he hung up.

I thought about Elizabeth

and the abyss.

Fell straight down into the chasm,

recognized reality,

saw truth,

and wept

because

my sister was still in the abyss

and I wanted to crawl out with her.

Part III

The conversation hung around me for hours.

Just two days before,

as I drove home from work,

I’d had an imaginary conversation with Elizabeth.

I thought of myself

dialing her phone number

and when she answered

I’d just say,

“Do you ever think of me?”

She used to have an answering machine,

back when they first separated,

in Arkansas.

Circles,

more circles

thought spiralling out from the past,

and Arkansas in the middle.

You never saw the word Arkansas around here until Clinton began campaigning.

I don’t think anyone really knew quite where it was.

Didn’t Bush think the state between Oklahoma and Texas… or was that some other confused politician?

Spirals of confusion, trying to figure out where the center begins, my life’s grace has become a double-helix with no end and no beginning. I trace the pattern and get confused, I can’t find my origins anymore.

Daddy died in 1987,

must have been,

we bought a mini-van to drive from South Carolina to Arkansas for the funeral.

We knew it would be soon,

his leaving us

and we sold his Chevy Suburban because it had over 160,000 miles on it.

We got rid of it for more than just old age,

it sat in my driveway

like an open wound,

mute testimony of everything my father could no longer be.

The trailer hitch left vacant with the sale of the Airstream,

the Yukon Territory license plate,

and the compass from Brookstone,

bitter monuments to traveler’s dreams.

I drove from Arkansas

to South Carolina in the Suburban when we moved.

I drove the Suburban back to Arkansas

to live in my in-law’s motel

while I helped my father forget he was dying.

But the Airstream and the Suburban

seem to have become symbols

of my parent’s generation,

of snowbirds driving south from Chicago to Padre Island,

from New Jersey suburbs down I-95

to hundreds of thirty-foot slabs of concrete nestled side-by-side

somewhere in Florida.

My parents never joined the snowbird set.

Instead

they travelled by flat-car through the Baja Peninsula,

sitting comfortably in lawn chairs

as the train carried Airstream and Suburban through Mexico.

The dog, Barney,

on my mother’s lap as she smoked Winston’s

and waved at locals drinking grape Nehi’s while roosting in the doorways of abandoned boxcars.

My father coveted Alaska and my mother gave him his dream.

Mount McKinley,

the Bering Strait,

and huskies pulling sleds,

they walked on glaciers,

ate bread baked in kitchens beside the Alcan highway,

and saw the things my father knew he’d see…

Mr. National Geographic with his Minolta.

The Airstream and the Suburban

and my dad,

thirty feet of silver bullet housing

and one determined man,

travelling together through Nova Scotia

and across Canada.

They drove on.

I busied myself with babies and pre-school.

Every few months,

my parents would camp at Lake DeGray, some 45 minutes away

and we would go down there.

Loading up strollers,

diapers,

God knows how many boxes of Cheerios

and graham crackers…

and spend the day watching my father and baby Caroline

lying in the hammock together,

a six-week old human

fitting in gentle repose across a seventy year old chest.

He had a brief affair with a small sail boat,

a Folboat,

and he’d take then two-year old out for short rides.

They’d stay in the shallows,

she wore a red hat and big orange life-jacket

and he wore brown saddleshoes with white socks

and under his shorts

flashed freckled legs.

I could hear them laughing and eating apples

while they drifted slowly around,

close to the shore.

And I remember this

no one else is here that saw it,

because Daddy’s gone

Jane’s the player in the play.

Participants in the scene don’t remember the same way the audience does.

Looking in,

instead of looking out,

changes the shape of things.

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