Saturday, February 22, 2014

Wreck and Salvage

"Good afternoon, young lady," calls Captain Roy from his perch on the wood deck of the big barn at Pickers near Milestone as I make my way through a field of rusted hulks. I am almost 54 and still look pretty good, but I wonder where the tipping point is when "young lady" stops being a flirt and starts being patronizing, ironic.

Captain Roy is neither patronizing nor ironic. His left leg is in a white plaster cast, and purplish toes with sharp, long yellowed nails are sticking out the end of the gleaming white exoskeleton that's holding his leg together; the skin above and below the cast looks angry, wasted.  I ask him how he broke his leg, and he doesn't say, just says, "They almost cut it off last year." Beat. "Hi, I'm Captain Roy. I'm a tugboat captain." And he extends his hand in greeting.

He is a tugboat captain. (D.P. Snyder)
"There was this little thing called Hurricane Irene", he says with a getting-underway tone of voice, like an old train gathering steam. "Took out the first floor of our house, took out my trucks, too,"  he says, gesturing vaguely across the huge field of rusting equipment at two large, white panel trucks sunk deep in the muddy stubble about 75 yards away. "Had to take out the motors."

Captain Roy tells me that his wife Angie runs the place, but he's watching it for her today. "She's young, like you two", he remarks as my husband walks up behind me. Captain Roy is not young and this business of the leg has made him aware that he is, in fact, old. It's three years since he messed up the leg,  since an accident the details of which he does not reveal, but which must have happened right before Irene. There's a big, beautiful old Harley Davidson motorcycle parked inside the barn; its black metal skin and Cyclops eye are gleaming from inside in the half-light.

"After the accident, the hospital cost 50 thousand," he says, and they wanted to cut off the leg to here," he says, marking the spot with a swift cutting gesture on the shin where a whirring saw would have severed bone from bone. But the surgery, the prosthesis and the rehab would have cost a million dollars, so he found "these two doctors at Duke", and they put his leg back together for him. "I still work the tug boat," he tells me. "Can't afford to stop working, so I just stump around on this," he says giving the plaster cast a playful whack.

American Pie (D.P. Snyder)
From where Captain Roy sits on the raised platform in front of the old barn, he can see pretty deep inside where mysterious, frayed, and rusted objects are stacked in a thick but orderly succession, like with like. He can see out, too, across the vast stubble field where rusted stoves, grills, tractors, tools, sailboats, and even a lime green Gatorade go-cart sit in quiet meditation under the fragile, white February sun. "Tug boat got beat up pretty bad, too," he says. "She was out there in the water when Irene came." And then he goes quiet.

Irene. Did a lot damage down-east, a lot of damage. Homes gone, boats gone, lives gone. Lives just broken badly, too, and then left to rust.  "Damn shame a man has to end his life with nothing," says Captain Roy. "Damn shame." I want to ask him what he thinks of universal healthcare, but I don't.

In a bin full of pocket knives, I find a vintage one made in Pakistan in the 50's. The bolster is green and long, curved just right to fit in the palm of my hand or slide slick as a salamander into the pocket of my jeans. It's got two blades, one long and sharp, and the other one serrated like a saw with a bottle opener on the end. Handing him a ten, I tell Captain Roy it was in the $5 bin. "Shouldn't have been", he says, "that's a vintage knife," and he hands me my change. There's no way to hand him back the $5 without insulting him, so I buy a weird little green plastic rake with an aluminum handle instead; I'll use it to rake the dunes on our strip of beach.

Amid the broken machines and objects of a happier time, Captain Roy sits in his old wood chair wearing a camouflage cap that shows he's a Veteran. The bill of his cap casts a sharp shadow across his face so that the only features you see are the white Papa Hemingway beard and his wire frame glasses floating in the penumbral space between beard and hat, seeing everything, reflecting the pale, late winter sky.

Shovels, Pamlico County, NC (D.P. Snyder)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

February, Piedmont Garden

Dry Pods (R. Taylor Monk)
The Sun has come out in Piedmont at last, just enough to melt last week's thick cover of snow and ice into patches, carving an atlas of irregular, dun-colored continents into the ground of our yard. Beneath the melt, the dominant color is brown, and the shrubbery shows crisp patches of destroyed foliage and broken branches, visible damage from a hard freeze of unaccustomed duration.

In our big kitchen window there's a sprig of kitchen rosemary that I rooted unintentionally in a glass of water; now I'm helping it take its first tentative steps toward independence in a pot of moist loam, dug from under last year's leaf pile. I am distrustful of the thin white water roots because so many times they've proved too feeble to handle the richness of real earth. Rooted cuttings placed too soon or too late in soil will crisp and die, so you must feel out that precise moment when the young plant is still excited enough to develop a real root system, and not made so lazy by water's lack of resistance that its thin, white roots will despair and rot when buried in real ground. I recognize that this "feeling" of mine is not scientific, and occasionally I look up such matters online in an effort to discipline my gardening efforts; then I promptly forget what I've read. I simply feel out the moment, and I try to love my garden to life.

Also in our kitchen is a rosebush that Dog and I found on a walk the other day, just before the big storm, a beautifully bowl-shaped knockout rose that some fool had jerked out of the ground, shearing off most of its roots in the process. I am speechless in the face of the violence that humans do to living things. But a single root still trailed from the thick stalk, and so I brought it home, sinking it in a pot of loose earth and pruning its live wood hard, amputating half of the bush in an effort to help it understand that all of its energy must now go toward making roots. I keep it good and wet in a plastic lined cardboard box full of earth, and I move it around the kitchen every day to expose it to every possible minute of the feeble February sunlight. Perhaps the rose will find the courage to put forward another vein-like root. And then another.

Whether the rosemary makes it or not, whether the rose makes it or not, will it be destiny? Or will it be because of me?

I am not above thinking that I am an instrument, a small but stubbornly hopeful scrap of a larger logic or spirit. I don't give that thing a name, I just feel it numinous around me and hope that human failures like ego and pride are far beneath it, whatever it is. I have not been given the gift of belief in dime-store gods. But I do feel the force of will behind the movements of the earth and in the sighing of the wind. I feel, and I obey.

It's the nature of conscious beings, and I include Dog in this, to be at their most desperate when they feel themselves utterly alone, solely responsible for the outcome of their lives and the lives of those they love. Dog looks to me to make things happen; my husband and I look to each other as well for comfort and protection; and neighbors are charmed when a word or gesture indicates that the reassuring tendrils of love extend, if only slightly, from your house to theirs via a card, a lunch invitation, or a wave hello. But as those tendrils become hyper-extended and aim at a wider circle of influence, it is common for the love inspiration to become something more like a desire for power, something like control, something harder and less connected to the true source. We begin to wish that we could erect fences around all those whom we love to prevent the necessary chaos of life from hurting them. We begin to want to dominate.

I love the fragile young rosemary. I love the abandoned rose. I love the azalea I planted last year whose crown has taken on a stricken look from frost burns. I love the tiny "remaindered" fig tree that I bought for one dollar at the end of last season and sunk casually into the dark earth at the edge of the forest where it has been since preyed upon by ravenous deer. I love the old bent beech tree that arcs toward the afternoon light like a dancer; and I feel an abiding sisterhood with the little native holly that my husband rescued from a ravenous wisteria vine, not unlike the way he rescued me six years ago. The abundance and health that the holly now enjoys extends itself to the bees who will drink its nectar, and to the robins who will nest this spring in its strong, homely branches. We are all of us charged with spreading our good fortune to others.

I'll admit it: I am afraid to go out to the field, to the forest, to my trampled beds to see what damage winter has done to my garden. I am terrified that I may discover that the hosta, spider lilies and rust-colored ferns that I sunk into the forest floor in autumn will be found rotten and lifeless. Will all my efforts to cultivate this small Eden have come to naught? Am I fully responsible for what happens on this piece of earth, or is it destiny?

Spring is not without its terrors. But the sun is shining, albeit thinly, and I hear birds singing. So I'll screw up my courage, pull on my rubber boots and canvas gloves, and I'll head out to the garden today with my bypass pruner jammed into the pocket of my old jeans. I'll start cautiously by gathering fallen branches, and then perhaps I'll touch some of those crisp leaves and twigs, turning them over in my fingers and inspecting them for signs of life. And if by chance I do discover some green shoot emerging, responding to the gentle tickling of this thin February sun, I'll pause for a moment and look. And what I feel will be love.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Earth Trembles in Milestone.

"Only in Pamlico County can there be a blizzard and an earthquake just hours apart," submitted B. to R., who proceeded to forward the message to me here in Piedmont. On Monday, February 10 at 8:11 p.m. there was an earthquake measuring 2.5 on the Richter Scale with its epicenter at the mouth of Goose Creek near Goose Creek Island, North Carolina (which, incidentally, is the birthplace of Miss C., our beloved neighbor and the wife of R.) "Big boom like thunder," writes B., "in the Commonwealth of Milestone, four miles south of downtown Bethany Crossing." What's more, by 9 this a.m., snow had fully covered the ground, which is a rare enough event in Downeast North Carolina to be remarked upon. Now, the snow is falling here in Piedmont too, thick and wet, and shows no sign of letting up. 
Channel Marker (The Big River at Milestone. Photo:. R. Snyder)

These are times of signs and omens.

I've posted before in this space about the end of the world (see here, and here), and I've always done so tongue firmly placed in cheek. But now it's February when one's thoughts turn to the color gray, the fact of death, and the seeming pointlessness of it all, and I would have to say that if the tectonic plate supporting Milestone is doing a mambo, the end of times may be closer than I had originally thought. Tongue firmly removed from cheek.

Nor was it good news a few days ago when R. shot us a series of evening emails from Milestone to us here in Piedmont to report a suspicious and grim situation unfolding across the street. The first message announced the advent of a old, beat-up ambulance to the Milestone front door of our elderly neighbor J.; the next one reported the arrival of police who drew on their rubber gloves in a disconcertingly unhurried way. And the final report declared the exit of a body -- fully draped -- from J's domicile. 

Here's the thing: I already knew something was going to happen, because I had seen it clear as day in his eyes two weeks before. It was a night just past full moon when my husband and I found him sitting alone in his car with the motor off, right there in the parking lot with the windshield angled so that he had a clear view out over the broad, black, moonlit waters of the Big River. No radio, no light, no company, no nothing. And as he wearily lowered the car window to greet me that night, offering a barely audible "hey", I saw eternity right there reflected in his smudged bifocals. The message pinged my brain pan clear as digital, "This man is dying."

That night, my husband and I walked in silence up the three flights of wooden stairs to the Lighthouse. We were both thinking the same thing, and as soon as we closed the front door behind us, we spoke almost simultaneously: "I'm worried about him." We agreed he seemed depressed, and we couldn't figure out why he was still in Milestone, since he had told us he was going to leave for the northeast a week ago.  We agreed between us to keep an eye on him. And the next day when we saw him, he remarked that he felt exhausted. "Left my heart medicine in the car last night," he sighed, sitting there on the front steps as if he had gotten stuck there going either up or down. "Getting old is the worst," he added, "It's. Just. The. Worst." My husband agreed, playfully moaning about his tennis elbow and creaky knees. "You? You have no idea," chuckled J. bitterly, "You have no idea. Not yet, you don't."

Two weeks later we returned from Piedmont to find J.'s car still there, parked almost diagonally between two parking spaces. Suspicions aroused, we knocked on his door, because by now his departure was seriously overdue, and when there was no answer, my husband went around to look through the windows of the house. But he saw no one, only the usual confusion of semi-packed moving boxes, a old left-over mop, and some scattered construction materials and paint cans. J. was supposed to rent the place out, or sell it. I write "supposed to" because he didn't want to, he said, but his wife and his daughter wanted him to.  They also wanted him to get a new car, so they "made" him sell his beloved old Toyota, and he didn't like the new car, he said. Didn't like it at all. Missed his Toyota ("that was a good car, a quality car.") They had made him give up his boat, too, he had told us, and he had handed the boat over to his daughter. She has it somewhere, he said, but he didn't know where. One got the feeling that everything familiar to him, everything he loved, everything that defined him to himself, was peeling away like objects scattering in zero gravity, and that what he recognized as his life was irretrievably disappeared. He was lost.

The next day we were leaving the Lighthouse to return to Piedmont when J. appeared, perhaps just returning from a lunch out, and he drove into the parking lot as we threw our bags into the trunk of our car. We're headed out, we said. Remember, if you need our help with anything here, you just let us know, okay? We'll do whatever we can, we said, reminding him that he had all of our contact information -- and did he need us to write it down again? Nope, I've got it and will do, he said with a crooked smile, standing there on the gravel of the parking lot, his arms limp at his sides like an old teddy bear with stuffing missing. He looked gray, dazzled and lost without his glasses -- where were his glasses? -- in the stale, unflattering winter light. He had no coat on, and it was cold. I felt that pull, a pull I've had before, that starts somewhere in my chest and that makes me open my arms and say, "Hug?" So I walked over and I hugged him, and asked him to please take care himself. And then we said goodbye.

I guess we weren't surprised to hear that J. died there, alone, in his house by the river a few days ago. Snowstorms happen, earthquakes happen, and every minute of every day somebody's world comes to an end.  J.'s wife called us a few days ago to thank us for trying to help. Our numbers, she said, were the only ones he had kept in his "file".