Monday, December 29, 2008
I saw this cute movie with my family the other day. "Marley and Me" wasn't rocket science but it did have a way of tugging at your heart, especially if you're a dog lover. We have a big yellow lab like the one in the movie. She wasn't quite as crazy as a puppy, but she did have a habit of destroying every dog bed we got her for about the first three years. I did have to bury wire fencing under our wooden one so she wouldn't dig her way out. I did blow my knee out burying a wire for one of those "invisible fences" that she never did obey. And she did chew the heck out of the front bumper on the only new car I've ever owned - the very first day I got the car. Still, she is one of the best friends I've ever had. She's mellowed now. At the ripe old age of 9 she still walks with us at night but she doesn't drag me on the leash the way she used to. I know that when she's gone I'll be one sad man.
I wrote this memoir a couple years ago, about another big yellow dog I crossed paths with. At a K-mart no less. It was just one of those chance encounters that when you write about it, it becomes sort of permanent. Sasha was just a puppy at the time. She was still taking me for a walk instead of the other way around. Anyway, it's called "Yellow Dog".
Thunder rolled like a freight train across the summertime sky. There was a blue-green diffused light that I always associated with severe weather. The treetops, heavy with early summer leaves were lunging back and forth in the circular wind.
I found myself in the car on this early stormy summer evening. Dog food. I should have written it on the grocery list the week before. I ended up making my weekly trip to the store on Sunday and forgot the dog food. I had just enough for Sasha’s early morning bowl. My forgetfulness meant that I had to venture out on this windblown evening.
The storm began in earnest when I was about half way through Lexington. It was about then that it was clear that this was not an ordinary summer shower. It looked dangerous and the safest place was probably inside. Huge drops of rain, the size of grapes, pelted my windshield making it difficult to see. I switched the wipers to high. Low clouds, full of moisture raced across the darkening sky as I pulled into the crowded parking lot. There was an open space fairly close to the entrance and I hustled to get inside before I got too wet. The worst was yet to come – and it was coming fast.
As I walked through the wind and rain I shielded my eyes and hung my face low to avoid getting the rain in my eyes. It was chilly for this time of year. I felt goose bumps race across my arms and back. Unexpected movement to my left startled me as I approached the overhang to the store entrance.
An old ragged dog cowered behind some canoes chained together outside the store. It wasn’t much shelter but the dog managed to crawl partway under the lowest canoe to shield itself from the fiercest of the storm.
It was a big dog, about the size of Sasha, my yellow labrador retriever. It wore no collar. It was thin and bedraggled. Its ribs arched outward from a grubby yellowish coat. Its tail was tucked firmly between its legs and our eyes met for a brief moment before it looked away and settled into the shelter of the boats. One eye was slightly larger than the other and one of the ears had a huge tear in it. It was an old wound for it had healed leaving a wedge shaped hole in the tip. Bleary eyed and tired looking, the dog looked quickly away and slunk lower to the cement. It did not want contact.
I looked around to see if there was an owner nearby, not expecting to see anyone. I didn’t. This was a stray, its owner long gone. I wondered about the dog. Where had it been? How did it get here? What would become of it? I turned into the bright warmth of the store.
The image of the dog stayed with me as I walked through the aisles of the busy store, despite my efforts to think of something else. The storm raged outside. Occasional thunder rumbled through the ceiling and we could hear the roar of heavy raindrops as they pounded the roof. Overhead lights flickered occasionally. Customers gasped each time, expecting the power to go out.
The store manager, a huge, soft, fussy man with beads of sweat standing out on his upper lip, traversed the front of the store quickly looking important, barking orders to the cashiers and stockers. Walking back and forth, commanding his minions. He was nervous. He was in charge. He had the power.
The manager had the kind of eyeglasses which made his eyes look large and his big stomach bounced up and down as he walked from one area to another – giving orders. Power.
At one point our paths crossed as I was searching the signs above the grocery section for dog food and dog biscuits. When I asked him for the location of these he didn’t answer me or even look in my direction. Instead, he ordered a young man who was busy stocking the shelves to take me there. He had a vest on. “How may I help you?” was silk screened onto the back of the blue vest.
“That’s OK,” I said. “Just tell me what aisle.”
When I completed my shopping and was standing in the checkout line the lights flickered once, twice and finally the power went out altogether. There was no panic but the shrill voice of the store manager rose above the commotion, “Be calm, everyone!” he screamed in a terrified voice. “The backup lights will be on within a few moments. I repeat, BE CALM!” He brushed past me importantly, smelling strongly of cologne and sweat. I could faintly see that the doors had been stuck in the open position when the electricity went out. While it was stormy and dark outdoors, the darkness inside was so complete that the rushing clouds could be seen clearly. People were silhouetted against the storm outside.
As some moved toward the front of the store, toward the doors, a couple of Wal-Mart employees stood close by asking people not to leave until the electricity came back on – just to be sure that everyone had checked out and that no one was shoplifting.
As suddenly as the lights went out, the electricity came back on with a loud hum. The bright lights dazzled our eyes and the manager heaved a sigh of relief, mopping his forehead with a large red handkerchief pulled from his back pocket. As I stood back in the checkout line I saw a disturbing sight. There were red blotches all around the floor at the front of the store. As my eyes adjusted to the glare of the overhead lights I could see that the uneven spots on the floor were actually bloody paw prints in a path which led round and round on the shiny linoleum floor.
“There it is!” screamed a woman in the front of a checkout lane. Cowering in a corner near where the ice machine met the wall was the yellow dog I had seen earlier. Girl dog. Totally soaked, tail between its legs, head down in a defensive posture. It was shaking with cold, with fear. It held up its right front paw, which was dripping blood – it looked black – onto the otherwise spotless floor.
“Get that filthy thing out of here! Get it out of here!” yelled the manager frantically. He was waving his hands around like he was swatting some unseen flies. None of the store employees made a move to follow his command. His eyes looked even larger now and sweat stains were growing under his arms. Two of the cashiers slowly came forward and approached the big yellow dog. It cowered lower and looked at them menacingly. They were afraid. Big yellow dog was afraid. Blood dripped from the upraised paw. Silence. For a few moments everyone in the place was staring at the wet wounded creature.
That moment is etched in my mind; the spreading pool of blood on the gleaming floor, black in the harsh overhead lights, the ragged ear, the wet matted fur, the big store manager puffing and sweating, the scared cashiers inching their way toward the frightened, injured creature. The scene from an overacted movie.
The manager, agitated that his orders were not being followed quickly enough, broke the nervous silence yelling in a high pitched falsetto, “Somebody grab that thing and get it out of my store!”
The cashier closest to the dog stopped and crossed her arms across her chest. She had been offended and wasn’t about to take orders given so harshly. She walked to her station at the register. “Sorry,” she mumbled sarcastically, in a voice just loud enough to be heard by those around her. “That’s not in my job description.”
The manager was getting desperate. Not only was a wet and bleeding stray dog messing up his immaculately clean store, but he was being told off by an employee. Another cashier, not to be outdone by the back-talker, also turned away and said, “Why don’t you get it out of here?” She also crossed her arms over her chest and returned to her register with a look of smug satisfaction.
“I wouldn’t touch that filthy thing!” he snorted.
I broke open the box of dog biscuits before paying for it, left my basket on the floor in the checkout line and walked slowly over to the frightened animal. “Here old girl,” I spoke softly, offering the biscuit. Head down, water dripping from her ears, belly, snout and tail, she glanced up meeting my eyes for the briefest instant before again looking down. Lifting her nose slightly higher in the air she sniffed in my direction but wouldn’t accept my peace offering.
“Won’t somebody do something?! Call 911!” shouted the frenzied manager.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” grumbled an elderly man whose job it was to gather shopping carts from the parking lot. He walked slowly and steadily toward the big yellow dog. The old guy, “PAT” was on his nametag, knelt down and let the bleeding dog sniff the back of his hand. Then, sensing no danger from the frightened creature, Pat grabbed it by the scruff on the neck and dragged it in the direction of the door. Although it was a rather large dog, probably around 50 pounds, it slid easily because of the wet floor and its bloody paw. It left a red brown skid mark on the floor where it had been dragged. The old man pulled the dog. It struggled but didn’t snarl. It dragged its legs and resisted, but the man in the Wal-Mart vest shoved it outside into the pouring rain. The last I saw of the dog it was turning its head to the side, squinting in the rain, looking where to go. It trotted off to the right, head down, tail between its legs, favoring the bloody paw.
The store manager started yelling for someone to get a bucket with water and bleach to clean up the mess on the floor. I guess that was in someone’s job description because the employees began getting back to work and before long, a skinny guy with long greasy hair had a bucket and mop and was swabbing up the mess.
I finished my store business and headed back to my car. I looked around for the dog but it was nowhere in sight. I unlocked my car and switched on the heat. I sat thinking for a while, then started up my car and headed for home.
When I pulled into the garage, my dog Sasha was waiting for me. Dog smile. Wagging tail. She was glad to see me. I rubbed her chest the way she likes. She rolled over lazily onto her back, tongue lolling out to the side as I continued to scratch her. I thought of the dog from the store and wondered where she was.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
With my course work mostly behind me, (I had changed majors and still had a little catching up to do the following summer – but that was cool) I was looking forward to real teaching. I had loved spending time with the little ones in my practicum courses. After a spell of not knowing what I would do as a “grown-up” I had settled into the fact that I would teach little kids. It was going to be a wonderful experience, a wonderful life. My classmates and my very best friend Heidi (who was to become my wife in another year and a half) were doing their student teaching at the same time. I had just enough money to make it by. I lived in a communal house with my music buddies. All was right with the world.
Because I was going to have an Early Childhood Endorsement with my teaching credential, I had a split placement for that semester. I was going to spend the first 9 weeks in a second grade class and the next half of the semester with a Kindergarten group. When I showed up, bright and early at the second grade class on that first day of school the door to the classroom was locked. I had never met Mrs. G (I shall use her initial henceforth), but I knew that her husband was the principal of the elementary school. The door was locked. The other teachers in the hall were all there early, setting up their rooms, taking down the Christmas decorations (in those days it was still politically correct to have Christmas decorations publicly displayed in the halls and in classrooms) and anxiously preparing to see their precious students. Two weeks is a long time in the life of a little one and these teachers knew it. They were probably as excited to be back at school as their kids. I was excited too. Breathless. This would be my first real class. I knew I would fall in love with them, that I would learn so much from this experience.
All of the other teachers were there and the door to my new classroom was still locked. Children were entering the building. I was beginning to doubt whether or not I was in the right place when Mrs. G. came barreling down the hall. She was an enormous woman. I wouldn’t even mention this except that it was part of her presence. She practically yelled whenever she spoke. Most of what she said was an order. The first words I ever heard her speak were something like, “Get out of my way! DON’T YOU SEE ME COMING?” She hustled down the hall (as fast as she could hustle) and dropped her bookbag at my feet as she reached for the classroom key on the springy elastic band around her wrist.
“Hi,” I said weakly. “I’m…”
“I know who you are! Pick up my bag and place it next to my desk. On the right side looking forward.” We walked in and I beheld the room where I was to spend the next nine weeks, the official beginning of my teaching career. “WELCOME TO 2ND GRADE” was stenciled on faded construction paper above the chalkboard. Above that was the manuscript alphabet, white letters on a green background. They’d been up there for years. They looked exactly like the alphabet up on the wall in my second grade classroom in 1964. “That’s where you’ll sit,” she said with a swivel of her large head. In the corner of the room, facing the wall was a student desk with a student-sized chair. “Wash the board before the students get here. So, they let you have hair that long at IU, do they?”
“Not very professional in my estimation. You’ll find that when you have your first interview, I expect. Now hurry with the board and dry it with that rag. Write in your neatest manuscript, ‘WELCOME BACK CHILDREN’ all capitals. Children really love capital letters. They didn’t teach you that in your methods classes did they?”
“There, you see, I taught you something already. Hurry up, the children are coming.” Mrs G. smelled. Her body odor trailed behind her like an unwanted ghost. Sweat. Perfume. She hadn’t had a bath in a while. My first impression was a scary one.
The kids came piling into the classroom in that way that kids do. They were eager to see each other and to catch up on the last two weeks. It was obvious that they were not looking forward to seeing their teacher. She barely addressed them but as soon as they came across the threshold their voices dropped and they put their things away and went to their assigned seats. Mrs. G hardly looked up as she was pulling out worksheets to copy for the morning work. “Here, get these run off.” I didn’t know the procedure for running papers in this building but it was clear that I was on my own. It was also clear that I’d better hurry. “BOYS AND GIRLS! QUIET. GET TO YOUR SEATS!” It seemed to me that she was hollering and I couldn’t tell why. “Get out your math books and do the problems on page 68. Let’s just see how much you’ve FORGOTTEN over these last two weeks!”
In that building the secretary had to run all papers. They used an old ditto machine, the kind with fumes and purple ink. The secretary asked me who my cooperating teacher was and when I said Mrs. G. She paused and sighed. I couldn’t exactly read that, but it didn’t strike me as a positive sign.
I could hear her hollering as I came back down the hall toward room 202. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I do recall that, “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH YOU!?” was one of her favorite sayings. When I came in the room was silent. Stone quiet. Mrs. G. was puffing. Sweating a little too. And stinking a little. “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT!?” Well I hadn’t been looking at anything I mumbled. “Make yourself a key and check these papers for me,” she ordered. I was happy to oblige.
The rest of the morning was seatwork with the language dittos I ran off for her. She let me have the honor of taking the kids out to recess. It was a little chilly and I had checked all the papers she left for me. There was a blacktop pad on the playground with a basketball goal. With Mrs. G. not around, I felt more at ease with the kids. We played and laughed and had a good time. No one misbehaved in any way that I could tell. They were just kids. I was miserable thinking that Mrs. G. was going to be my mentor for half a semester. All I had seen her “teach” was the dittos and they were pretty insane. Circle the letter for the initial sound of the picture… Fill in the blank with a word from the word bank… And handwriting, handwriting, handwriting. The way she “taught” handwriting was tracing over letters and copying letters. On dittos. The morning seemed like it had lasted for hours. No one could talk or whisper.
Now that we were outside and playing and laughing hard, I wondered if I could take being Mrs. G’s underling for nine weeks. I was trying to be optimistic but the morning was the exact opposite of what I was taught about good classrooms. I had already participated in a number of practicum courses and all of my methods courses and underneath all of these was a basic respect for human dignity, an appreciation for children. There wasn’t a whiff of those feelings in Mrs. G’s second grade classroom.
The afternoon was nearly the same as the morning, only the handouts were fairly random math seatwork (called arithmetic by Mrs. G). These sets of papers were handed to me as the children went to gym. I sat at my assigned seat in the corner fuming about the day and thinking that all she wanted me there for was to run off and check her stupid papers. What was I going to learn about how to be an effective teacher from this?
We had hardly spoken to each other all day. The silence in the room was uncomfortable as she snacked on potato chips and I graded the papers. “I saw the way you were interacting with the children at recess. I can see the recess field from the window.”
“Yes?” I responded. Her tone was accusatory. I hadn’t a clue as to why.
“Awfully familiar, don’t you think?”
“Familiarity breeds contempt, you know.” It was an accusation.
“You’re NOT to play with the children at recess. It’s unseemly and the children will not treat you with the respect you deserve if you play with them. It’s unprofessional.”
I was perplexed. I could see that she could never - would never, even if she could – play with children. But she was forbidding me to play at recess. I was only 20 years old. Not much more than a kid myself. She was telling me that I couldn’t become friends with the students. I didn’t know how to respond. I tried to be bold. “Don’t you think that a little time playing together might help me to get to know the kids? I mean we just met and I thought…”
“You thought? Are you questioning me? What in the world are they teaching you at IU? It’s all about respect, Mr. O’Keefe. RESPECT!” She turned away from me toward her desk and left me to sulk about not being allowed to play with the kids. We’ll see about this, I thought.
“Libby,” I pleaded with my university coordinator after school on the phone. “She is totally mean. She is always yelling and the kids don’t even know what she’s mad about half of the time.”
“You were just there a day. You don’t know the history of the class.”
“Libby, you would have felt it too. It is poison in there. Poison. I’ve got to get out. Can’t you find me another placement? It’s so early in the semester. I’ll make up the day, I swear.” Libby was an old hippie. She was a grad student making her own ends meet with supervising student teachers. She was kind and real and sympathized. She knew what I meant but wasn’t willing to let me give up.
“Stick it out for a week or two, O’Keefe. You were there what, one day? You didn’t give the woman a chance.”
“You should have heard her Lib. She was mean from the second she saw the kids to the second they left.”
“Listen, I have had some kids with tough placements before. You can still learn a lot. It isn’t pretty, but in a very real way you can learn how NOT to be a teacher. Based on the things you’ve told me already, you’re learning tons.”
“No way. Nine weeks? You expect me to learn how NOT to teach for nine weeks? And she stinks to high Heaven,” I said, grasping at straws.
“I trust you, OK? I have heard that she is a decent teacher but you’re probably right. Please just give it a week. Just five school days. If it doesn’t work… we’ll find something. Five days is all I ask.”
“Just to the end of the week. That’s four more days.”
“OK, but keep the faith.”
That conversation did not put my mind at ease. I should be in another classroom with someone kind. I wouldn’t have cared if they were the same as me philosophically, I couldn’t stand being around someone who never lightened up, who never stopped hollering and who stunk. I felt so sorry for those students. I felt that way after a single day, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live with this woman for seven hours a day for one hundred seventy days. That would seem like an eternity.
The next day was basically the same. I was early. Mrs. G was late. I ran off papers and then checked them. She hollered and scolded. She smelled worse than the day before. I asked about teaching science at our break since it didn’t look as though she was headed in any particular direction that way. It didn’t seem as though she had any science of social studies in mind at all. “SCIENCE?” she yelled. “Of course I teach science! Would you like to see how an experienced teacher teaches SCIENCE? Watch carefully Mr. O’Keefe.”
When the children returned from their morning recess, she kept them busy at their seats with plenty of meaningless seatwork. She removed an egg from her huge lunch sack. Then she took a dirty old glass milk bottle from a cabinet. “Watch what you can do with SCIENCE, boys and girls!” she yelled, smirking in my direction. She removed the shell from the hard boiled egg and sat it nakedly on her desk. Then she ripped a piece of paper from a notebook and took some matches from her desk drawer. After lighting the paper she clumsily dropped it into the bottle. She grinned. The children ooohed as they had probably never seen fire in the classroom before. Then she put the egg over the mouth of the grimy bottle which covered the opening completely. The fire in the bottle went out as the air inside was used up. Smoke curled up and because of the low pressure in the bottle the egg sank into the opening. Unfortunately, it was not enough to suck the egg into the bottle. The effect was rather subtle and I’m not sure that the children could notice any change. Mrs. G squirmed a bit.
“YOU SEE?!” she asked. “THE EGG IS GETTING SUCKED INTO THE BOTTLE!” The egg just sort of sat there. “SEE?!” she said again, as if saying it louder would make it actually happen. Then, not so subtly, she reached up from behind the egg with her thumb and popped it in. It landed in the ashes at the bottom. The children were not all that impressed because they had seen her push the egg in. “DID YOU SEE?” The children dutifully nodded that they had, in fact, seen the egg enter the bottle.
“Well, alright then, it’s time for lunch. Get your things.” The children gathered their lunch and recess things and lined up. “Take them to lunch and recess, Mr. O’Keefe. And remember what I said. I can see the recess field from the window.” As I left the room I could see Mrs. G with the overturned bottle and a knife cutting the ashy egg to pieces, which she would no doubt eat as part of her immense lunch.
Okay, disgusting. And not good science by any stretch. Also, I wasn’t allowed to play with the kids at recess. But it was not an altogether horrible morning. I guessed that I could get used to it if I had to. But for nine weeks?
When we got back in from recess it was time for more handwriting. The kids had a few trace-and-copy worksheets to do. When they were finished they were expected to pretty much just sit there quietly. Mrs. G sat at her desk flipping through magazines (she told me that she was working on lesson plans – I never saw any lesson plans). At one point she got up and walked around to check on the kids’ progress. One little girl was sort of doodling on the back of her paper. Mrs. G had walked up behind her as quietly as was possible for her. The girl kept on making her looping drawings on the back of her finished handwriting sheet.
“WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING, MISSY?!” she shrieked. The little girl jumped as if slapped. “WELL, WHAT?”
“Just trying some cursive, Ma’am,” was her soft reply. I wouldn’t have believed that Mrs. G could move so fast. She did not hit the girl. But she snatched up the paper from the little one’s desk and violently ripped it to shreds all the time yelling, “HOW DARE YOU WRITE CURSIVE?! WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT YOU CAN TEACH YOURSELF?” She tore all of the papers on the girl’s desk into pieces. “WHAT YOU LEARN INCORRECTLY COULD TAKE YEARS TO FIX! YEARS! DON’T YOU EVER WRITE IN CURSIVE AGAIN UNLESS I TELL YOU TO. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
The kid was scared speechless. “WELL, DO YOU?” A nod. “FINE, and let that be a lesson to all of you.”
She returned to her desk with a satisfied sigh. She was panting. It was the most effort I’d seen her put into anything in the two days I’d spent with her.
That was it for me. After the children were dismissed at the end of the day I gathered all of my things. Mrs. G didn’t have a word to say to me. I didn’t have anything to say to her. Not even a good bye.
“Libby, it’s Tim.”
“You don’t have to worry. I’ll get a job waiting tables this spring. There’ll be plenty of placements in the fall. I’ll just finish my coursework in the summer and stick around. I love Bloomington. I’ll just begin my masters a semester later than I thought…”
“Okay, okay, how bad was it?”
“Truly, Lib, it’s not a problem. If we can’t come up with an alternative placement, I’ll just stick around…”
“What’d she do, O’Keefe?”
“For one thing she screamed in this precious little girl’s face. You wanna know what for? For pretending to write in cursive! She was done with her freaking seatwork and she was bored and G came down on her like a ton of bricks. The kid was just supposed to sit there and do nothing. Like it’s solitary confinement at your desk or something. She committed the crime of pretending to write in cursive…” I was ranting and I knew it. But it wasn’t right, what G had done to that girl. It just wasn’t right. “She tore up that child’s paper, Lib. Shredded it and threw it in her face like she was worthless. She made her cry, Lib. For no reason.” I was running out of breath. “No reason at all. I can’t do it, Libby. But don’t worry, like I said, I can wait tables…”
“All right. All right. You win. If I made you go through nine weeks of that it would be idiotic. We’ll find you something.”
And we did. By the grace of God, Heidi heard a fourth grade teacher sort of complaining at her faculty meeting at the University School about never getting a student teacher. I contacted Libby, she contacted the principal, who contacted Sandy Richards. Sandy welcomed me into her classroom with wide open arms. There couldn’t be two more different teachers on the face of the earth than Mrs. G and Sandy Richards. G's mean spirited attitude was raplaced with Sandy's kindness. The student-vs.-the-teacher mentality of G's classroom was replaced by collaboration and great conversations in Sandy's room. Sandy's students loved coming to school. They laughed a lot. They were optimistic. They dreamed. When I got to Sandy's fourth grade classroom they were in the middle of studying whales. Those students were passionate about whales. They thought they could change the world for whales. I don't even think G's kids knew what science really means. My placement there at University School with Sandy, and later with Vickie Drummonds in kindergarten, was the most incredible good fortune in my life up to that point.
I ask myself now and then how things would have turned out if I had stuck it out with Mrs. G. Would I have become as miserable as her? Would students be my enemy? Would I still be teaching? Or, could I have learned how not to teach and come out on the other side of that mess a strong teacher who loves children?
Because she saved me from my predicament, Heidi and I did our student teaching at the same school for the winter and spring of 1979. We were married a year and a half later. Would we still be together if I had not switched placements? What if Libby was hard-nosed about it and made me stay with G? What if I had quit and waited tables? Would I have even gone back in the fall? I know that I’ll never know the answer to those questions, but I think back on how close my life was to becoming something so very different than it is now and it is another reason for me to count my blessings.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
He opened his eyes. He was on a large, barren, snowy plane. The sun shone bright in a cloudless blue sky. It dazzled his eyes. He was wearing a leather fringed parka. It was made of animal hide and had a hood of long fur which surrounded his head and face; the long hairs tickled his cheeks.
It was beyond any cold he had ever felt. It stung his nostrils to breathe deeply so he immediately began short shallow breaths. He turned his head, still unable to see any signs of civilization, any sign of life at all. On his hands he wore crude but effective leather mittens. He looked down at the rest of his clothing. All leather skins, all very primitive. His feet were clad in rough leather moccasins. He could feel fur between his toes. He was warm enough but his heat was already dissipating. He wasn’t sure how cold it was but by the way his nostrils froze he knew that it was dangerously cold. These clothes could not protect him for long. It was just a matter of time before he lost too much of his precious body heat.
He had to move or it would be too late. He knew it would increase his circulation to move and therefore keep him warm a little longer. The soft surface snow was up to his ankles. Who knew how deep it was below that? As he looked over the dazzling crystal snow, nothing broke the view all the way to the clear distant horizon. Not a man-made structure, not a tree a bush, or a single blade of grass. There was a strong wind which whipped up the loose snow and blew it across the surface in crystalline waves. However beautiful the scene before him, he knew that the wind was his deadly enemy, robbing his body of the precious heat he needed to survive.
He started to jog; slowly as his fur clothing didn’t give and flex much. His sleeves and pant legs were thick and very rigid. Right away he felt a slight temperature increase inside his furs. But the running also made him breathe harder which stung his nostrils fiercely. So he slowed to a gently, rolling trot.
The steam he exhaled condensed on the fur rim of his hood creating a silvery wreath around his face. The sun was dazzling and tears filled his eyes and overflowed his lower lids. The tears froze instantly on his cheeks. He stopped and rubbed his face with the back of his mitten. The frozen teardrops fell to the ground with a tiny chittering sound. This frightened him. He spit and his saliva froze solid and shattered as it hit the ground. This was cold unlike anything he had ever known. If he did not find shelter – and soon – he would die. This cold was death. Nothing could survive for very long exposed to this temperature.
He began to jog again, pacing himself so he would not breathe too hard. The tip of his nose was numb as were his exposed cheeks. He pulled the hood more tightly closed around his face. As he moved along he felt his forehead go numb. Then his fingertips and toes. Frostbite. He had to keep moving. It was his only hope. He looked behind him and saw that his tracks were roughly in a straight line. His only hope now was to get to shelter, to warmth. He had to move forward, always forward. He might be moving away from people and further into the wilderness of blinding whiteness, but there was nothing else he could do. Forward. All he could do was move one foot, then the other. Always forward.
Seconds turned to minutes. Minutes to hours. A step turned towards hundreds and these to miles. His head throbbed from the glaring ferocity of the sun. The numbness that started in his fingers and toes had spread gradually to his arms and legs. The frost from his frozen exhalations that initially covered his moustache and beard had spread into an icy mask that sheathed his face from his eyebrows and lashes to his chin and throat. The fringe of his hood was a white icy ring encircling his frosted face.
He began to tire. Looking behind him, his footprints went all the way to the horizon. How many steps had he taken? How many miles had he walked? He stopped. Just stopped. What was the point? There was nothing behind him but his own empty footsteps in the slowly drifting snow. Nothing ahead but endless snow. Nothing to be seen anywhere but the lowering sun, dark azure sky and snow – boundless snow. As far as he could see in all directions – snow. Infinite.
He sat. His entire body felt numb, almost warm but he knew that was impossible. He knew he was actually feeling his circulatory system shutting down. What felt curiously like warmth was actually his frozen nerves ending their signals to his brain.
He watched the sunset. Beautiful, he thought. His last sunset. Red. Crimson. There were just a few clouds in the west now, sending brilliant shafts of sunlight and shadow radiating across the sky. Hadn’t he called that “Godlight” sometime in his past? As the sun lowered the blue above darkened to purple. He sat there upright as if in a straight-backed chair. He felt nothing but exhaustion now and even that was fading. A lightness overtook him. He became drowsy, his eyelids heavy. So, this is how it ends. He thought. He fought to keep his eyes open. Fought for those last precious moments, those last few beautiful sights.
Then he lay down on his side and closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Pressure. Silence. An ache in his chest. Pounding temples. The need for air. Green light. Swirling. Salty taste in his mouth. He opened his eyes and all the world was a blur. Underwater! Panic. He was out of breath and submerged deep in a world of water. The ocean!
Air! If he did not have air his lungs would implode. He needed to reach the surface within a few moments or he would drown. But which way was up? He was so disoriented that he couldn’t be certain. Were his head and shoulders already pointed in the right direction? No time for thought. He needed to act. He reached up and out with his arms, closed his fingers into fins and scissor-kicked. He prayed he was moving toward the surface.
Steel bands squeezed around his chest. He kicked and stroked again. In a few moments it would be over. In seconds he would have to breath in. He kicked once more with all his strength. He could see faint gray light above. He sensed he was near the surface. If he just hold on. Stars filled his vision. His ears rang. He was blacking out. If he did, he knew it would be over. He reached out one final time, pushed his fingers together for a greater hold on the water…
He burst through the surface with an explosion of exhaled air and a gasp of inward breath. The man sucked in air so violently that he simultaneously breathed in salt water spray. Coughing violently, he nearly put his head underwater again. Treading carefully, he deliberately calmed his aching, searing lungs. He closed his eyes and forced himself to breath slower. To relax.
It took a minute but he gradually got a hold of himself and his panic slowly eased away. Opening his eyes, he rotated his body in a complete circle, scanning the horizon. Water and sky were all he could see. Not land, not a boat, not a seagull or pelican. Only water and sky.
Dazed and confused, he knew he had to move forward. If not, he would surely drown. How long could he last out here treading water? An hour? A day? If he didn’t swim forward, he would simply lose strength and sink. Sink. Like a stone. Which direction should he swim? The sun was directly overhead so he could get no bearing from it. It didn’t matter. He simply had to swim.
Getting horizontal on the water, he reached forward and kicked. His stroke was not strong. He could not move very fast. That wasn’t the point. He just needed to move. He needed something to do; he needed to act, to survive. Even if he didn’t spot land before his strength left him, he might be seen by a craft. No matter. There was no choice. His will to survive was the one single thing he had. To try to survive was his only option. He would not give up. No surrender.
Time slipped into uncertainty. It washed over him like salty waves. Eyes stinging, throat burning, arms and legs aching, stroke after stroke after stroke.
After a while, he didn’t know how long, the burning and aching in his limbs became numbness. His shoulders tingled as if someone were jabbing them with needles. Then his knees, his neck from turning side to side. He knew that he didn’t have much strength left. He knew he didn’t have much time. He kept looking up instinctively monitoring his progress but that was impossible of course. He had nothing to mark where he’d been, how far he’d gone.
Still no land, no boat, no seabird. He swam on until his head was buzzing from exhaustion. His arms and legs felt as heavy as lead. He had so little strength left. Another hundred yards? Another fifty? Another ten strokes. One more stroke. That was it. That was all he had. He stopped pulling himself along in the water and became upright. He could no longer move himself forward but he could keep himself upright.
Again, the seconds turned to minutes and the minutes flowed by endlessly. His strength gradually and completely drained away until he thought he was too weak to even breathe. He knew that he only had moments left but he clung to them tenaciously.
His vision blurred, became fuzzy and gray, as gray as the clouds above. He was about to stop kicking and just let go, sink into the deep. How bad could it be? At least it would be rest. How he longed for rest. Peace. Maybe there would be peace.
He stilled his arms and legs and sank slowly, slowly, still holding his breath. He was still very much afraid but faced the inevitable.
Then a sudden sickening, stinging, scraping sensation against his feet, smashing his toes and tearing his skin, ripping back his toenails. Sandpaper against soft flesh. He woke with a start, came out of his sleep-like trance with a shriek. He burst to the surface gasping once again, coughing. His skin was covered in goose flesh, his hairs stood out on his neck. He wasn’t certain but all he could think was… shark. Was it below, waiting, sensing him, smelling his blood? Was it closing in on him, jaws open, sharp triangular teeth exposed, shooting toward him like a missile? Is this how it would end?
He swam with renewed energy. He was aimless. He was frantic. Knowing that his motions were probably giving the shark a clear target, knowing full well that the end was near. He had to do something. Swimming was all he had left; it was all he could do.
The sky was darkening, he could not see the sun behind the thick, dark, low clouds but it had to be near the horizon. They seemed to be rushing across the late afternoon sky. The brush with the shark had given him a kind of paranoid energy. His swim strokes were erratic and uneven. But he was in no danger of dozing or sinking. Not now.
Then he saw it. It may have been fifty meters away but he could make out the gray triangular form slicing through the surface of the water toward him. It wasn’t moving incredibly fast but its course was directly at him. It was the dorsal fin of a very large shark. It was moving on a slow curving course.
Oddly, he was not afraid now. He would almost embrace the end. He couldn’t hold out much longer anyway. There was no land in sight. He was doomed. As the fin approached, he sucked in a final lung full of air, pulled himself into a tight ball and awaited the end. He hoped it wouldn’t hurt, but he was ready. He hung suspended at the surface of the sea waiting for the jaws that would surely end his life. He waited.
Finally, he could hold his breath no more. His pulse was pounding in his temples and eyes. His lungs were burning. When would the shark attack? Just when he could hold his breath no more he felt something brush his face. It was not the sharp, toothy attack he expected, but light, feathery, tickly…
Thursday, December 11, 2008
According to the Midrash, the ladder signified the exiles which the Jewish people would suffer before the coming of the Messiah. First the angel representing the 70-year exile of Babylonia climbed "up" 70 rungs, and then fell "down". Then the angel representing the exile of Persia went up a number of steps, and fell, as did the angel representing the exile of Greece.
This sort of catches the essence of what I tried to do with this piece. A story with beginnings but no end. It was also inspired by my little friend Lisa, a really fine writer herself. She emailed me with an idea she had for a story in which the main character wakes up from an adventure that was just a dream. Then she goes on with her life and wakes up again. It was just a dream. Again, she goes on as if things are normal and wakes up. Just a dream.
The obvious connection to mythology is the Sysyphus character who was condemned in Tartarus to roll a boulder uphill then watch it roll back down again for all eternity.
The other night I was looking around and came across a wonderful little film on youtube called "Occurence at Owlcreek Bridge" (There are three parts if you watch). I saw this film in college back in the fall of 1976.You might find a tiny connection between "Owlcreek" and my modest story as well.
With this odd little piece, I wanted to present a story in which there is only a single character with no identity, not even a name. It is all a drive to survive. To keep moving forward. The man in all three is the same. You don't know who he is, where he's been, how he's gotten here. It has no beginning and, seemingly, no end.
Thirst. Incredible thirst. Heat. The blazing sun beat down upon his shoulders and the back of his head like a burning hand. His face was turned on its side when he awoke from a deep dreamless sleep. The sand under him was piercingly hot. Had he just fallen? How long had he been lying there? His blistered, cracked lips were leathery as he licked them. Precious moisture from his tongue swiped over his parched lips. He spat out sand and slowly, painfully rose to his knees. His vision was blurred as he lifted his pounding head and gazed out toward the horizon.
Sand blew in dusty clouds. Sand stung his arms and legs. Sand burned his eyes. Sand as far as he could see.
Thirst. If he didn’t find water soon it would be over. His muscles ached; his joints creaked as he rose carefully to his feet. A wave of nausea almost made him black out again. He fought to keep from retching.
He didn’t know which way to walk but he knew that he must keep on moving. Staying where he was meant certain death. Thirst. Water. Water. Thirst. His tongue was heavy in his mouth. Thick. He had sand in his nose and throat. He didn’t know if he would find water in time, but he had to try. He needed to keep lifting his feet and putting them down. One foot in front of the other. His feet were lead. But he kept on walking.
In the distance he could see heat waves rippling off the dunes. It looked vaguely like the water he sought so desperately. But it was a fool’s dream. All he could see was sand. From horizon to horizon. Sand. Hills of it. Valleys. Waves and ripples. Sand.
His eyes ached from the glaring sun. His only relief was to close his eyes. When he did, he stumbled and fell having to painfully get back on his feet. He had to keep his eyes open to the full glare of the tormenting sun. He had to live.
Exhausted, he kept plodding. He wasn’t sure if he was walking in a straight line, but he tried. Every few minutes he looked over his shoulder at his trail. In the distance his footprints faded into a faint blur.
He walked slower and slower. His mouth and throat were so dry and sore he could not even swallow. He knew it wouldn’t be much longer. Maybe one more mile. Trudging on, muscles burning, head pounding, just a few more steps. Then he simply fell. He had so little strength that he could not even break his fall with his hands. At least he turned his face to the side before he hit the hot ground. Sand flew up his nose and into his parched mouth as he drew in breath.
Then – unconsciousness. Dreamless deep sleep. Darkness…