When all you have is a slingshot, every problem looks like a window.
There are in my entire memory just a few times when I have been slapped into a sudden clear awareness of life; when I suddenly began to understand my purpose, and believed that fulfilling it might actually be within my reach. I’m having one now, lying in bed just before dawn. Outside I know the mountain sky has been colored with soft, rosy Crayolas in apricot, yellow orange, goldenrod and salmon. To reproduce what I am seeing on paper I would melt all those colors and blend them into a single marbled crayon called This New Day. My nostrils flare, suddenly craving that delicious scent. When a kid and before I had other people’s words for feelings, there were always my crayons I could use to express myself. Navy blue, I wanted to be left alone. Daffodil was my happy color and all the best days looked like electric lime. Crayolese was my first language, and it is still one way that I understand the otherwise baffling world of feelings.
I lie just behind my lover’s wide shoulder. Soon there will be enough light to see her hair. I want to touch her, but this magic has me in thrall and I dare not move.
To think this all started because I took the long way home.
It feels like a row of dominoes pre-arranged into a destiny, as though all along when I felt I was spinning my wheels and going nowhere, I was unknowingly headed toward this one perfect now. What is happening, what has happened, feels in this very moment as inevitable to me as it felt impossible yesterday.
I am lying with her.
We slept together.
Last night, when we sat over her expensive scotch and I told her I wanted to be hers, it seemed right and safe to go and finally blurt out my feelings.
Remind me not to drink and date.
It’s one thing to refuse to tell a lie. This, I used to do as a small child. But actually telling the truth - that doesn’t fly too well with anyone. Parents say you’re being mouthy, the school slaps you with an Asperger’s Syndrome label, the cops hate on you.
Whatever you do, don’t tell the truth.
That fateful day - which seems so much longer ago now than four days - Hank and I were hanging out at Emmie’s house after a half-day’s work. Hank was only there to do laundry and when finished, offered to give me a ride back to her shop. My trailer sits just down the road from there. But I wasn’t ready to go - I was looking through Emmie’s photography albums and, more importantly, the snickerdoodles were just then going into the oven.
Hank took off and I hung out for another hour before leaving Emmie’s house, which is butter yellow. A friendly color, it suits the energy of the place. I like talking to Emmie and it’s an easy half-mile walk from my trailer, so I’m on this road two or three times a week. I waved goodbye to Emmie on her porch (she does adore the theatrical) and headed up the road which has no other houses, only fields and woods. When the weather’s good I like to strike off into the trees.
Here and there eastern white pines are planted together in stands originally planned for timber harvesting. But they have grown long past their prime and are ugly and overcrowded. When you look up the black-gray trunk of one of these plantation pines, one sees tier upon tier of jagged limbs, bare and broken off. The uppermost one-quarter of each tree has the only live branches (green, forest green, yellow green, cadet blue) and meets its neighbors at the top in a silent, desperate skirmish for sunlight. Most of the sunlight (green yellow, yellow) having been stolen by billions upon billions of starving chloroplasts, only a few scattered beams reach the forest floor and the effect is like a dreary, forbidding cathedral.
I avoided the timber and headed into the mixed hardwood forest sprawled up the side of a hill. There was still plenty of daylight left for exploring. I feel at home in these deep woods with their mossy-trunked giants, which is odd because for most of my life I’ve been a suburban or city kid, familiar with chain link and asphalt more than any forest.
Out of all the plants, the ferns (green, forest green, chestnut, mahogany) are my favorites. Short and lacking blossoms, they still lift themselves up with unpretentious dignity. Ferns stand through sheer will power, as if they are completely unashamed of their plainness. Reminds me of my boss Hank the carpenter, with her oddly successful half-sobriety. In Crayolese, Hank is lemon yellow.
My legs burned as I wended my way between the trees; I love that ache and leaned hard into it. I found and followed the steepest places, some of which were rock balds with barely any plant life. Other spots were in almost total shade, and as I climbed over logs and parted the bushes clouds of gnats rolled up around my head. I saw many wildflowers I didn’t know the names of, and a few that Doc had taught me on our walks: Canada Mayflower, Common wood sorrel and wild columbine (green, red violet, scarlet, respectively).
The trees looked more stunted and twisted as I got closer to the top, some like giant bonsai. This must be the side of the hill that gets more wind, I thought. At the top, the view was a little disappointing. Ridge upon ridge running parallel to this one, with the patchwork of variegated greens that caresses the eye. I never get tired of looking at this kind of view.
To my left was what looked like an old orchard. Apple trees maybe, neglected long enough by humans for the ancient earth magic to begin creeping back in.
It beckoned to me.
Just as the white pine monoculture always seems to carry a mood of mute despair, the apple orchard has its own vibration. It seemed to me, seeing it for the first time, that this place was very old and very patient. And not at all uninviting. Soon I could see tiny, hard apples on the trees; for sure I would be coming back here in fall.
I wandered, running my hands over the massive boles, peering into hollow trunks to see if raccoons really lived there like they do in children’s books. When you do that alone you don’t have to feel silly, because who is there to judge?
I came to a massive trunk cut long ago and smoothed by the weather to form a sort of table. The idea of a table suggests food, and my backpack was soon off and open. I opened the Tupperware (three cheers for Mr. Tupper, wherever he may be!), took one bite of still-warm snickerdoodle and stood savoring it, silently thanking Emmie.
Inside my pack were a flashlight, sweatshirt, first aid kit, rain poncho. In the bottom was my wrist rocket. I stuffed the rest of the cookie in my mouth and reached in for it.
Of course, I might have not done that and saved aggravation for myself and a couple of other people. But then, the dominoes of destiny would have fallen another way entirely.
Or worse yet, not fallen at all.
I had rubber-banded a baggie of copper BBs to the handle. The trunk table would make a perfect target-shooting platform. I started to wander through the orchard, eating cookies and scanning the ground for an old can or better yet, a glass bottle. Admit it, there are few things as satisfying as the sound of breaking glass.
I had been trending gradually downhill when the trees thinned and suddenly, there in front of me was the back flank of Jo and Doc's house, the ‘big house’ no more than twenty yards away.
Working for Hank this past year, I’ve been inside the big house many times now as well as out in the opposite yard. On the sunny side Doc has her greenhouse and garden. This side, because it faces north, is dark even on summer afternoons. Passing from dappled sunlight into the deep shade, I squinted at the massive wall trying to figure out - which rooms are those? One high window marked the laundry room and I could see the short wall of the dining porch, green gingham curtains visible as a breeze puffed them lightly outward through the open casement windows.
To my left, I knew I would see the house corner occupied by Jo’s study. Behind her massive desk, she has proudly installed a window brought from her grandfather’s house. It seems only right given that it was Grandfather’s money that bought this house for Doc and I Jo had explained the first time we were introduced last year. The thing was a monstrosity, looking to my eye like a lot of thrown-together pieces of old glass. Any value it had was purely sentimental. The panel was perhaps three feet by four, with some of the sections walnut-sized. All those pieces require a lot of lead to hold them together, which if you ask me completely ruins the view.
On the day I met Jo, I’d already worked for Hank for a few months, and we were starting to create a connection. Our work styles are similar - we both like physically demanding work which produces a tangible outcome, and neither of us is much of a talker.
Hank belongs to a group of people she refers to as “the Jo-alition”. I had already met the other members. How it works is, Jo owns all of the land, but leases it out and lets everyone decide how to steward their own patch.
Hank could have just moved me into the trailer on her “part of the main”, but none of the people who belong to the Jo-alition operate in secrecy from the others. Transparency is a cardinal rule. Before offering a permanent position and a place to live, Hank felt it was important for me to meet each of them. Including Jo, there are seven. Emmie (aqua green) and I hit it off immediately; Doc (sky blue, denim) and I were becoming close as I accompanied her on walks and worked in her overgrown garden; Griff (manganese blue) tolerated me; Griff’s girl Bunny (Cr: ochre, medium brown) had been nothing but sweet to me; even Dinah (lavender), who lives down in south Jersey but comes up often for visits, seemed to like me. Only Jo remained a cipher; for me, an entity with no color.
The first time I was shown into Jo’s study Hank was with me. Jo, sitting behind her massive desk, waved us in. Shut the door, will you Hank?
We found our places in two comfortable club chairs facing the desk. Friendly, but formal, that was Jo. What I couldn’t stop looking around at were the books. Taking my seat in front of the desk, I craned my head to see what started behind me and extended for at least twenty feet. A solid wall of books and where the room appeared to have been enlarged, a section fully two stories high. All crammed with books.
I will consume anything printed but at that time I was reduced to: an electrical manual, a scouting guide from the fifties and a faux leather-bound copy of Frankenstein.
Twenty feet by two stories high - as I turned to face Jo in her chair, my mind was running the numbers.
And then I saw Jo for the first time.
And then I saw Jo. For the first time.
Oh, sorry. Do I repeat myself?
Even seated she is tall. She holds her shoulders perfectly square. Jo never, ever slouches. Jo never uses contractions in her speech. Somehow those two things seem related, and somehow I knew both of them before she ever spoke a word to me.
We studied each other. Hank had promised me this was not a job interview, I’ve already hired you, but somehow under Jo’s gaze I felt like I was under close scrutiny and very unlikely to get the job.
I owned three books.
Jo owned one hundred and sixty square feet in the original room and an additional two hundred square feet, of filled bookshelves. And was there a little staircase leading to an upstairs nook with a table and chair?
Call it four hundred square feet of bookshelves.
I definitely wasn’t getting hired. Back then, I didn’t even have my GED.
The size of the house, the glimpse I had of her property, the nearly thirty years she has on me, the booksbooksbooks - any one of these would have left me too blown away to do anything but trot out my standard when-in-doubt smartass shtick. And I would have, but before I could do that, my heart went to my throat.
Because from that first glance, I loved Jo.
I loved the heavy jaw, the salt and pepper hair, the large hands, the last-decade dyke haircut, the dark eyes (cocoa). My life was ruined that day. I would never again be able to not think of Jo. I would never be able to go to the big house without mentally tracking her location and calculating my proximity to her. At once, I wanted both to be near her and to go to any lengths to not be noticed by her, as I was bound, bound to screw up and make myself look stupid. After that first meeting I kept a low profile and watched her so hard from the corner of my eye it made the eyeball muscles hurt.
Because puh-leeze, she was never going to love me back, was she?
I was obsessed. I was in heaven. I was in hell.
That pretty well sums up the year between meeting Jo and the day I found myself lurking outside her study with a slingshot. At that part of the orchard, the trees grow to within fifteen feet of the house, and so I was able to creep up close without worrying about being caught. That I knew of there were no cameras tracking me, and Jo was out of town at a conference. She was due back in three days, or approximately forty-one hours, but who was counting?
Me. The one who loves but cannot have, cannot even imagine having Jo. For a year I had been trapped in the amber of my frozen solar plexus, dangling between hope and fear.
She was always too far away.
Suddenly, I was furious about this agony that had gone on and on and on inside myself, unspeakably weary of having to hide and pretend because after all, isn’t that a big lie?
I looked at the mullioned window with its fancy design and panes of textured glass collected from European sites Jo’s grandfather had visited. All that tradition, that family solidity protecting, surrounding, gracing her and I was jealous. There was a hoarse intake of breath I realized was me.
How dare you make me fall in love with you! I wanted to yell. What is the point of these feelings, just running all over me all day, every day? You are doing this to me and I HATE you.
And I love you.
And I wish you were here, sitting in that room. So I could see the back of your head, with that peppersalt hair and try and maybe succeed in if not hating you then loving you not so much because goddamnit this hurts.
I hate you. I love you. I shot a BB through your grandfather’s window. and punched out a perfect eyeball of glass.
And, of course, there would be consequences.
Because it only took a few days before Griff was called in to look at the damage, Jo having come home to find the glass piece on her desktop. Before leaving for the conference, she had been planning for the academic year and the blotter calendar was turned three months ahead, to September. The piece landed squarely on the 14th, a Saturday.
Griff had searched around and found the BB that I’d shot. Now I was in Jo’s study again, standing this time in front of her desk with Griff sitting on the corner and scowling at me, full New York Statie even though she’s still out on medical leave.
Of course, I told the truth. I apologized. I offered to pay for replacing the piece of glass. When Jo asked me the inevitable question why I shrugged and looked down at the my feet.
Jo thanked Griff with just a bit of irony for the “top-notch detecting” and excused her. She followed Griff to the door and closed it. My gut twisted painfully, hearing that I was now locked in. Well, closed in and unable to move, so as good as.
Now it was just we two.
Jo took her time walking back. Instead of sitting down, she went to the window, her back to me, and stood looking out the new hole.
Do you know? she said without turning around. I was not in actuality seeing the forest through this old thing.
She came to me, lightly touched my elbow.
Kit, tell me why you did this. What were you shooting at?
I made a decision. Lifted my head and looked straight into the cocoa eyes.
I missed you too much. Please don’t ask me to explain.
My lover’s hair is transformed by the faint tendrils of approaching dawn. Salt and pepper have alchemized to become a perfect Crayolese pewter in the first moments of this new day.