Once upon a time, I will sit on the end of the dock with you. Our toes will dip into the lake and now and then kick up diamond mirrors of sky and clouds, dock and shore, you and me. This very well may be a fairy tale, for many reasons, not the least of which is we have no lake and the lake has no we. But that doesn’t cool the warmth of your shoulder against mine, or warm the cool water splashed on our legs and faces or dim the smiles that we’ll share, once upon a time.
When I was little and we kidded ourselves about how safe the world was, I’d sneak out in the early morning from the Franken-camp my dad built onto Grandma’s little trailer, through the dew-sopped grass, past the communal bathrooms and from there to the beach on Snyder’s Lake. That’s where I’d introduce my now sand-crusted toes to the night-chilled water and the minnows who also felt safe there in the shallows. That early, the lake looked like it had been spilled onto a 100-acre platter overnight, even though I knew it dropped twenty feet fast if I wandered another twenty steps forward. But I was happy standing there with the awakening waves washing grains of sand off my sore toes. Through the mist, I could hear the squeak of the sailboat kissing the Miller’s dock, trying to make their motorboat jealous. And the water was so clear, I could see the sunnies and bass having the minnows over for breakfast just out in front of me. But mostly I heard the waves whispering everything was going to be all right today for a barefoot ten-year-old who stepped on the hidden remains of a hot sparkler last night in the darkness. I’d be fine just as long as I stood at least ankle-deep, refrained from that twenty-first step without my snorkel and mask and didn’t eat until they made me. That’s how I could stay in the water without a cramp Mom threatened I get if I didn’t wait a half-hour or so after my meal. No, I didn’t believe her either. I didn’t have a towel to sit on and I didn’t have anyone like you to sit with all day or when the sun disappeared over the other side, when the water got quiet and the lightning bugs made the lit-up houses across lake look all wobbly. Shame we gave it up in a few years, when the world and so many people decided to show how scary they really were. But most of them never had a lake to sit in front of that could wash away sand, worries, and years if you took no more than twenty steps forward and nineteen back. This was supposed to be a nice little poem about my childhood summers on Snyder's Lake over in Rensselaer County, NY. I didn't foresee it making so much of a cannonball dive of memory on me. So I just kept writing and we'll call this a prose poem or something. I'll do a real lakeside poem for you later. Until then, thank you for joining me and don't take twenty-one steps without your snorkel and mask. It's quiet down there on the bottom, but a little cold.
At 5:30 the past three mornings, dawn's snuck into my bedroom uninvited. It peeked around the edges of the drapes, mute beneath the hum of the fan blades. Across the floor it padded like a big old white dog, leapt up on my bed, flumped its head upon my pillow, and stared, its breath hot and tickling my eyelids open. But it wasn’t Sunday’s light and heat reveille kept me from slumber. No, my mind now sprung from its own rack and began pelting me with questions like a bedside five-year-old who asked the why and why not of certain things. Once you try telling a mind to go back to sleep, your snooze is over. I couldn't answer that pest, his dog nor the busybody Sun, because these were our same old whys and why nots I've tossed to by moon glow until past midnight for years now.
I'm not one given to dropping the ball, but keeping three in the air is tiring. Maybe I’ve lost it, youth, talent and all, ‘cause multitasking’s now hard on my wiring. While I’m centered on one, two can get free. If I split vision on a pair, it’s one. But when I try keeping them all, 1, 2, 3, my once-easy performance comes undone. So what’s an old juggler supposed to dare when his act’s become too much to go on? Best if I toss them all up in the air, and when they come down, be dead and gone. What if I dropped while they’re still above? What if I’m the first of us to fall? Would you be the one who’d show me your love like I’d pick you up? But you’re not a ball. You’re not some prop I would catch and then toss. This is no act, not some story I told. If I fumbled again, I couldn't bear the loss! See, you’re the one I wish only to hold. This piece originally ended on a really down note. Like death wish down. And that's not where I am today. Everyday life can be a struggle, and this lonely writing life can make it worse. That's when the inspiration angel on my shoulder reminds me it's gonna be okay if we just keep listening and talking to one another. Thanks, angel.
There were so many things I didn’t know, back when I didn’t know I’d need to know them. Always wondering in the wrong direction when the answer was right in front of me. Often, I’d uncover some oblique knowledge while the ground tipped beneath my feet in your presence. That’s why my ability even to ask the right questions, let alone understand the answers, was based on the just-so tilt of that pretty head. Your sideways nod would send me loping away in embarrassment, a mope who’d never understand us, or even myself, until it was - almost - too late.
Turns out those dim old reveries were only the dreamy memories of a man sustained more by wish than reality. Eventually, though, he realized wishes are just hopeful dreams, images of someday somethings without substance, even though they can feel so real they'll spur a heart to galloping almost as cloppity as a touch from the one who spurred them. In the end, though, it was you who turned this someday something into a reality. No one else could’ve tended it for so long, never letting it die, just waiting for the right time to bring what it always really was into full bloom.
Most of the time the I wonders come to us at night as we lie staring up into darkness from the cotton sheet coffin we share with all the doubts, regret, guilt and disappointments with ourselves for the rights or lefts we decided to take on this funereal trek of a life. Before we nod off, we may retrace our steps and imagine how things would be if we’d chosen the other tine at each fork in that road, which is a silly exercise. We say we love each other for who we are, and who we are has been forged by those wrong turns and gutless fears, stupid choices and ill-expected cheers that came up tsks and moans along this route that’s led me here. But without them, our journey would be akin to that of a donkey attached to a wheel grinding grain or pumping water - lives with purpose but without passion, direction but no desire. And most painfully, ones with a You and an I…but no Us. Ones worth not one more step.
Remember when you were afraid of shadows, how they’d invade your space in the sunlight’s glow? Or was it while you were alone and worrying about how this or that might grab you from below? A shadow's merely an echo of the shape of something gotten in the way of where light wanted to be. A void that lies flat, folds or bends upon light’s intended destination, back then quite scarily. But life moves on in its petty pace and most of your fears have ebbed as with it you’ve grown. So most shadows have lost their powers to frighten you, day or night, except, perhaps your own. Wonder how those didn’t scare you while we cut You and Me pieces from light in the park. Y'know, I’d give up even my own shadow, to help you brave those echoes you still see in the dark.
Back in the old days when they used to get together, neither of them really invited the other inside for a visit. Both were having such a good time together, each shining their lights upon the other, it didn’t matter. They came close, but always kept where they came from in the shadowy background. Each place full of rough relatives and noise, disrespected girls and beaten boys and neither wanted the other to know they were denizens of such dark, desperate and despairing places within their hearts. But one day he followed her home, past the beatdown and the mean, the unspeakable and the rotten unseen, and he watched from behind some of the same kind of debris he knew so well. She entered the room where she was she even when no one was looking. There, he saw her as the candle in that broken window, the bright spot amid all the things she didn’t want him to know. But he’d seen it all before in the same kind of spiritual slum in which he awakened each day, from which he walked, always focused on her rainbow light he saw refracted through that shattered window like a prism.
I don’t know why it is I find the midday heat on this searing summer day so very uncomfortable when all I’ve ever wanted was to be wrapped in a certain 98-degree embrace. To wander outside right now would be an act Sir Noël Coward could most definitely write a song about. Not that I wouldn’t mind being thus immortalized, but I am neither an Englishman nor a dog. Though to dream I’d ever find myself melting into anywhere other than noon’s shadowless sidewalk rather than some evening into those not-very-tan arms…? I must be quite mad.