“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.” ~George Eliot
The ditch was huge, an entire town’s worth of real estate under sea level, testament to what twelve men, a pickax, and five shovels can do under duress. To fall into the ditch was like dropping from a two story building, or like diving into an empty swimming pool, but no one was at the bottom. There was only dirt.
The surrounding area was also barren, devoid of human life as far as the eye could see, if any eyes were indeed around. If someone were to climb out of the ditch she could have seen what amounted to a ghost town, but without any ghosts. Memories floated like dust in the stale air, but they couldn’t attach to anything save for twisted metal and charred wood.
In the distance the sky was a blood orange hue, contrasted against the white, fluffy clouds like Cleopatra rising from the red Egyptian clay to rule an empty world. No noises could be heard, not even the sound of seagulls winging their way to the sea. On silent wings instead were carrion flies thick as mud, the only living creatures for miles, focused on the scent only they could smell.
Dry, stale blood littered the ground in striated patterns, like a Rohrschach test with no discernible meaning except to those who had gone through some kind of traumatic experience. No longer bright red, it was instead a rusty brown, testament to how long it had lain there in the dirt. The flies flocked to it like it was a gourmet meal just served up in a fancy restaurant, still uncommonly silent.
Empty buildings fringed a main street that could have been anywhere, except for the lack of traffic to and from each domicile and business. Apartment buildings, banks, churches, and corner markets all sad facsimiles of how they would have been elsewhere, bustling members of a community. Instead they stood sentinel to the devastation that had left the town a soul-less husk of itself.
The ditch stood like a gaping maw at the end of the street, as if waiting to swallow the town whole, an addition that would have unnerved a newcomer if any were around. But no one was around, and no one would ever see it, not anymore, save for the flies who seemed to multiply like legion with each passing moment. They swarmed the blood, feelers out, cleaning it like nothing else could, obscuring the evidence without realizing what they had been tasked to do.
Then they were gone as dusk came to claim the deserted town as its own, the twisted metal turning shades of purple and gray as it sat beneath the rising moon, white with opalescence. And the rain came in sheets, sudden like a thunderclap exploding across the valley. It began filling the ditch bit by bit, meter by meter, the rain an endless droning that almost simulated activity in town. Almost. It continued to come down in torrents until the ditch turned into mud, until it overflowed and dirty brown water spread across the lower end of the town’s main street.
The twisted metal was washed clean, the remaining blood drowned in the incoming vertical tide, the flies long gone as the assault wiped away the fingerprints of an aggression that had left its echo. From the ditch began to rise bloated corpses that had been buried under the dirt at its bottom, its supposed emptiness just a mirage, a band-aid on the real devastation within. One by one they rose to the surface, those men who had dug the ditch, who had unearthed their own burial sites, returned to the land where they had walked and talked in sheer ignorance before their end came.
As the rain began to peter out, around the enormous hole the bodies lay in judgement of what the town had become. And in the distance the sounds of fire engines laboring in vain could be heard, getting closer by the minute. The buildings waited in a silence so keen it was palpable. They waited for answers. They waited for a second chance that might never come.
“Write about the beach: your favorite memory of a trip, what you love, what you hate (e.g. sand gets everywhere). Would you live on the coast if you could, or is it better just for a visit?”
My sister said we were going to the beach. Something about it being a Saturday in the fall. Nothing fancy. Just down to the Jersey shore to soak up the last seasonal rays of the sun, to sit on benches and work on our tans. Oh wait. I don’t tan. But it sounded like fun anyway, just sitting there doing nothing…
In traffic because everyone else had the same idea, to catch those last rays of the sun before it was replaced by the cool chill of winter. Decidedly not beach weather. So we were stuck between a Corolla and a Chevy truck, both loaded down with beach accoutrements. Sort of like we were, with our folding chairs, our towels, and our beach bags.
She had texted me while I was at work. I had planned on leaving straight from Target (where I work) and hitting the road, so my luggage was already packed and in the trunk of my Santa Fe. So when she told me we were hitting the beach I immediately thought about not having packed trunks. Why would I have? I thought we were hanging on the streets of Philadelphia.
Luckily I work at Target, so I flew off to the Men’s section and found a pair of trunks on the clearance rack, quite a find because they were the last XL ones in the entire store. It didn’t matter that they were a bright red with the semblance of fire running up and down them. I wasn’t choosy, so I bought them quickly and hit the road.
So we were sitting in traffic, talking about relationships and money, and not necessarily in that order. There’s apparently a thin line between trust and “money trust.” How much do we trust our significant others with the money we made? How much do they trust us with theirs? The beach could wait. We had bigger fish to fry. There’s just something about talking to my sister that makes me see things in a different perspective, and I think it works the same way for her.
The hour-long wait smushed between those two vehicles as we sputtered down the highway on our way to the Jersey shore went by way too quickly. I miss those times I used to spend with my sister, just the two of us doing who knew what, just enjoying each other’s company in a way we never truly did as youngsters and sandbox playmates. I mean, the beach was fun too, once we found a parking spot and lugged all our stuff down to the sand, but I remember the car ride even more.
But damn, didn’t I rock those shorts?
Yesterday a 20 year old asked me if the children who were with me were both my own, and I told her, “I sure hope so. I spend enough time and money on them.” Then I thought about it, something I initially thought was laughable, and I realized it’s an honest question, especially in this day and age. In this era of rampant divorce, blended families, and dysfunction on every corner, to be an adult man who is married to the mother of his children, that’s a lot rarer than it used to be.
Which brings up another question. How often do we assume things based on appearance? I told someone the other day about a conversation I had with my mother-in-law’s husband, and she said, “You could just call him your father-in-law.” I looked at her like she had grown a second head, and I responded, “Uh, no I can’t. Because he’s not my father-in-law. He’s my mother-in-law’s husband.” I’ve since learned that I can call him my stepfather-in-law. But it all seems way too complicated, so I just call him George.
Assumptions rule the world, don’t they? I guess that makes me proud of the 20 year old, because she didn’t just assume that the children who were with me were my own. She wanted to make sure she didn’t make a mistake when talking to me about my kids, if they were in fact my kids. I was at first taken aback, but wouldn’t that solve a whole host of problems, if everyone was like her, if everyone asked the questions they wanted answers to instead of making wild assumptions?
I have spent the vast majority of my life not asking those kinds of questions, just going with the flow, figuring that what I thought I knew was actually the way things were. Instead of asking what I wanted to know, I rolled with it, and more often than not the things I thought were a certain way were not. Luckily most of the time those things did not come back to haunt me when they were eventually revealed, but sometimes they did. And it was at those times that I vowed never to assume anything again… until the next time, anyway.
A few years ago I was talking about my wife in one of my classes. Let’s face it, I talk about her a lot in class, but only to make points. She would be proud of me. Anyway, I was talking about her, and I said something about how she gets pretty red in the sun. All of my students looked at me with amazement. “Red?” they said in unison. “Um, how do black people get red?” And I said, “She’s not black.” They were stupefied, their brains blown because they assumed that because I’m black my wife would have to be. They had been led to believe by those around them, by the media, and by what they felt was common sense. And they had been wrong. It took a while for them to truly process that.
So I’m going to try not to assume, at least not as often as I’ve been assuming things. As much as I know there are few things people could assume about me and be correct on, I should always remember that I’m not an anomaly. Everyone out there has things about them that I shouldn’t ever assume to be true, not without getting to know them first, or at the very least asking those questions that may clear things up.
Oh yes, and I’m going to avoid asking any woman, “When are you due?” You know, unless the kid is kicking and I can see the imprint of the little foot against her stomach. Assumptions can pack quite a punch if we’re wrong.
I don’t have a bucket. I never did. Buckets were for people who had water, an abundance of water that could be useful for cleaning things, for taking care of flood situations, and for sitting there looking like a bucket. I had a shallow pail. You know the kind, the one that people used in church to wash each other’s feet during communion. A shallow pail is excellent for a small amount of water, but it spills easily, much more easily than a bucket. It’s quicker to fill and to empty, though, and that’s worth something.
Since I had a shallow pail and not a bucket, I can’t quite conceive of having any kind of bucket list. A bucket list presumes there are a lot of items that grace it, and I only have a few. Not too many. Not too few. But just like Goldilocks found out in the bears’ house — just enough. When all the craze started over bucket lists, when the movie came out, when the book was pretty popular, I noticed all these older people getting on board, perhaps because knowing you’re closer to the end is a great motivator. I’m not sure. But now, now there are a ton of younger folks jumping on the bandwagon, creating their lists and doing all manner of crazy things in order to mark things off those lists.
So my shallow pail list would have to begin with something obtainable in the near future. I don’t want to get old and then try to rush through. For one, getting old is not guaranteed. It isn’t guaranteed to anyone, which has become even more evident in light of recent events. And even if getting were guaranteed it means being less limber, having less flexibility, and therefore having less chance to achieve those items on the list. My shallow pail list has 15 items on it, and while they’re not the easiest to achieve, at least I know I can hit each one if I try hard enough.
Shallow Pail List Item 1
I will go back to Ireland and spend at least a month there.
Shallow Pail List Item 4
I will be published by a major publishing house.
Shallow Pail List Item 7
I will learn how to play an instrument, preferably not a piano.
Shallow Pail List Item 11
I will try something new that scares me every single year.
Shallow Pail List Item 15
I will stop blaming others for my own faults.
My shallow pail is pretty full, and while some of the items on the list will take quite a while to achieve, I know deep down in my soul that I can accomplish them. None of them requires me to skydive, base jump, or bungee jump, so I’m good, but they will stretch me outside of my comfort zone, which is the point. I love having a shallow pail to pour in my expectations, and point by point to let them out again as I achieve what I set out to do.
Marking them off will be my pleasure. And it starts … now.
Everyone has bits and pieces of themselves that aren’t obvious, that don’t stand out but that are there nonetheless. We showcase the things that we are proud of, and those things that make us less sure, we tend to bury them down deep, at least when we’re in public. It’s why when someone dies and others go through their stuff they always find something surprising.
No one is an open book. How dull would the world be if we all were? If we were all 2-dimensional characters in a book we would quickly tire of our boring lives before too long. There’s something to be said for surprises, for being able to find out something we didn’t realize about someone else. It’s like thinking you’ve climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, and finding out you’re really only halfway up. Enjoy the rest of the climb.
That’s why it doesn’t surprise me when people who have been married for umpteen years decide to divorce, citing boredom, or saying that they now want “different things.” It makes perfect sense. They’ve been around each other for an eternity, so they have no more surprises. They’re bored, and instead of making new memories they can share with each other, they lament the loss of the mystique they had once upon a time.
I guess I think there are no excuses when it comes to relationships falling apart. Either you accept the person for who they are, or you don’t. But citing boredom after being together for a long time, that can easily be remedied. See, once couples get into a routine they tend to do most things together. It’s why my wife and I make time for individual pursuits. Then, we can share those experiences with each other, keeping life vibrant. If I spent every last waking minute with her what do we have to talk about?
I love those bits and pieces of myself that not everyone knows, because they make me unique. But I’m no longer into surprise for surprise’s sake. I’m into making new memories, drawing new connections, then bringing them all back home again. Because who wants to get boring?