"Our roots will always be tangled."
Nice thought. But like so many things--communism, universal healthcare, democracy--it only sounds good on paper. Makes for a nice plaque on the wall. A greeting card, maybe. A coffee mug. People will spend money just to have those words staring back at them every day, reminding them that somehow their "friendships" really mean something.
I wasn't always this way. I'm a drag, I know. Looking at four indifferent, splintery walls. One ceiling, stained along the seam by amber remnants of past rainwater. Out one iffy window.
There's a hazy square of what's supposed to be sky, painted by modern Nature's compromised artistic hand. There used to be good reasons for venturing out into the world below that sky. A flycatcher patrols the perimeters with the patience of God, lurking like a highway patrol car with legs for wheels about its invisible precinct.
An ambient wind of allergens whispers into my ears from off to my left side. At thirty-minute intervals, the wind picks up into a biting gust with an agitated growl. I feel the whole tiny house try to take off from its mediocre foundation. Even houses get tired of staying at home once in a while. I turn the dated dial on the a/c one more tiny notch to kick the pump in again, crossing my fingers at the haphazard electrical system in hopes of getting it below 80 in here.
Except for the square of light, which it--even it--is obscured by a partial, protruding wall off to my right, there's nothing in here to bring life to this cubicle. Not even me, and especially not me. Sitting in this living room/kitchen/workstation is a lifelong sentence to Vitamin-D deficiency, muscle loss, vision impairment, stagnant blood circulation. Eventually, insanity.
Back to the analogy about the tree roots. I'm forced to think about it now every time I flip on the monitor in weighted-down pursuit of anything resembling "social". I'm sorry, but memes, emojis, pictures, "likes", shares, follows, hash tags, and who ate what for breakfast is not social.
Social is the sixteen-wheeled freedom of skating at the rink with a friend. Forty years ago, Leslie and I did that. Never missed a Saturday that I can remember. Social is scouting the banks of a creek. Hiding and seeking. Panning for gold, knowing full-well there wasn't going to be any. That's social. Thirty-five years ago, Leslie and I did that. Social is physically sitting across from each other, listening to the raging screech of Alanis Morissette--with mouths full of burgers and fries. Twenty-five years ago, Leslie and I did that. Social is trading song parodies for belly laughs while hurling cases of ketchup to each other to put on the shelf. Fifteen years ago, Leslie and I did that.
Something happened. The world changed. Overnight. And with the world everybody, including Leslie. "No, it's just you." I judge. I see leathery sickness where baby-soft skin used to be as I type a seldom-used password into the box to bother wasting yet a few more moments I'll never get back. "You changed." Two paths which once ran side-by-side split as they always do, and I kept right on trucking down mine. Dead-end. Somewhere along the way, I got tired of trying to keep up with technology. "It's called getting old."
Boom! Memes, emojis, pictures everywhere coming at me so fast my brain hates me for even trying to process it all. "Hold my beer..."; that damn smiley face with the tears, looking right at me every other comment on every post; a cute puppy wearing a bandana, holding a "Germ-X" dispenser with its paw.
I navigate to Leslie's "No Place Like Home" group page, wondering what plethora of stolen, unoriginal, soul-less garbage I'm going to have to endure this time. Sure enough, right at the top of the feed is that puppy picture. The scroll bar jumps in mockery of my attempts to go down far enough to get to Leslie's most recent post before three new ones knock it further into the archive. None of today's are his, so I do the unthinkable: I actually type something as a post. "Has anyone seen Leslie lately?" Fourteen more "stay-at-home" themed pictures and memes later, teeth floating, I get an answer.
"Nope. Hasn't been on here in a couple weeks." another former friend who used to go by the name "Nathan" before social media turned him into "Dwarfslayer_42" replies. After waiting for the "How have you been? Haven't seen you in a while either!" that I know is never coming, I abandon this sinking ship of meaninglessness and the black, blank screen is back to showing nothing but the shaded, vague reflection of a man who may well be in his final days.
The reflection stares again. New day--or rather, "S.O.S., different day". Same straight face, eating the same peanut butter crackers for breakfast. I hate peanut butter crackers. I'm sick of them. I'm not a morning person, I'm not a breakfast person, but I still gotta have food to survive. The chewed mush might as well be wet cardboard.
But you know what? I'm going to see to it that this is a new day! As my tongue wrestles with tenacious remnants of a lacking meal cemented between teeth and gums, I get up. Step one...step two...step three...finally, the door. I don't know why I've kept that telescoping aluminum stick with the compass on top right by this door for all these years. Never did me any good in here. Anyway, better lug it along with me.
Right away, I'm greeted by the pestering presence of a gnat. That's not social. But he seems to think it is. "I'm not the leader! So quit following me!" Seven attempts later, I catch him with my left hand. He'll be a prisoner of war for the duration of this adventure--if he don't suffocate first.
"Unbelievable." I murmur amidst the redneck jungle of weeds, briars, brush, and discarded artifacts strewn all over the place. The pointed tip of what's now little more than an old codger's cane pushes some thorns to the side. Is this what I think it is? Yup: A tin "Mellow Yellow" can. It's "mellow" alright. So mellow the yellow has faded to white. I threw that can there, 38 years ago. At the time, this jungle was so much easier to navigate. I remember being able to see the sunlight sparkle off the fresh metal from a hundred yards away when it hit just right.
I came down here expecting to see way more than that as far as memory-reliving material goes. But all I'm seeing as I venture deeper into "The Enchanted Forest" (as we used to call it during winter, when all the cedars would get dusted over in snow, and the ground vegetation, glazed over with frost) is a perplexing maze of mayhem that treats me like the stranger I've become.
The creek didn't change. I did. I'm at least 12 inches taller now, 80 lbs. heavier, and only one-tenth as motivated. I changed. If my myopia is any indication of my memory, it's probably diminishing too. I'm positive the old trail starts here! But what if there never was one?
I have a seat on an old, charred log. I don't feel like doing anymore today. Think I'll just head back to my four walls. You can't resurrect the past anymore than you can resurrect the dead. Where there used to be a fully-dimensional wonder world of lush stomping ground, now there's only a greenish-brown blur. I'm like that log--charred beyond recognition into a hollow, brittle shell of my former self.
"Damn Wrong-Turners!" I simmer into the air between my makeshift bench and the distant crackle of driveway gravel. That or the census people again. If I don't even count to the people who know me, why should I count to these strangers? I wait a moment. Then another. Then another.
A thump dents the back of my shirt. Gravel? No, it couldn't be! Another moment passes. "Thump!" The last time I felt that distinct stinging sensation was...And the last time I heard that rhythmic laugh from behind me was...Only this time, it was dry and wheezy instead of sharp and menacing.
I wait before turning around, struggling to keep my composure. "Leslie?"
"How you doing, old buddy?" He walks toward me--arms out--glistening just below eye-level, bright in the face as I used to see him on any Friday afternoon right before the bell rang. Already feeling a spark of mischief in these rusty bones again, I'm tempted to tag him back with any convenient object I can find to throw. But I don't. That would be ridiculous at this age!
"Ent! Ent! Ennnt! Six feet away!" I half-joke, bringing him to a halt. We're all a tad paranoid these days I guess.
Hands turned upward, much like he used to do when I was "the cop" and he was the "robber", he half-jokes back: "Oh yeah! Sorry man."
"Leslie..." I keep my lids closed and my throat as clear as I can. "I'm so glad to see you! But...at the risk of sounding unwelcoming...Why are you here?" I should be inviting him in for something to drink. This sweat-lodge, southern jungle in May is hardly the place for a reunion. But the fact remains: We can't really call ourselves friends anymore--after all these years. He's changed, I've changed, the world's changed.
"Do you want the short answer or the long answer?"
"Both." I say. "I've got the time."
"I knocked. No one answered. I figured you're probably still a day sleeper, and you might not care to see me anyway by now."
"Well...", I thought.
"But just as I started to leave, I thought about the creek. I sure didn't expect to find you here! I was just curious to see how things have changed since back in the day. You know?"
I point at my chest. "That makes two of us."
An indirect stare at the sun through the tree tops above us precedes the second answer: "You know me, Garv. For the last ten years or so, I've been online all the way. When this lockdown started, I didn't think much of it. I figured all that extra time would be the greatest thing that ever happened. Instead, it resulted in a total burnout."
"Well it's about freaking time!" I wanted to say, but couldn't.
"Anyway, you get the idea." He spares me from the remaining verbal part of the "long answer" as he leans toward the thicket in front of us. "Didn't there used to be a trail here?"
A balloon-full of air vents gradually through the ivory cell bars hidden behind my lips. "Yes! Yes there did. But good luck now!" I laugh with sorrow at this wall of vegetation that has banished me from my childhood. "Would you like something to..."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" he asks while snapping the blade of a pocket knife open. "Let's start a new one!"
Instead of finishing my question with "drink?" and pointing back toward the house, I join him. The sequel to Leslie and Garvin's Big Adventure has begun.
"You tackle the briars, I'll clear the low branches."
Some things never change. "Always gotta shove the dirty work off on me." I kid as I take care to avoid the thorns.
Deep into the woods, near the trickling creek, we stop. A pile of rotting debris we recognize as the ruins of what had begun as the foundation of a tree house but never got finished rests beside the trunk of the tree which once held it high above. I turn to him. "Are you as bummed out as I am right now?"
"Not really." Leslie replies with a shrug for accent. "Tree houses can be rebuilt. Trails can be cleared again. But check out that tree, would you? Am I the only one who notices how much it's grown since you and I were last down here?"
I looked. First, at the ground, where it took no stretch of imagination to see the massive roots below supporting this natural testament of triumph; then, skyward across the trunk which had matured into a fortress over the decades; then, at the two main limbs growing outward and upward from there; then, at the two of us standing below them.
"No, Les. You're not the only one."