Thursday, February 17, 2005

A memory

We’re at the family cabin in the Texas Hill Country. I’m seven, my sister is twelve and we're unearthing the yard in search of worms for fishing. Beside her my hands are in the dark dirt and it smells moist and fresh and I delight when I move a handful to find a fat and squirming worm. I hold out my prize to her and she smiles at me as if I’d found a diamond there, and takes the worm from my open hand and puts it in the cardboard bucket from the fried chicken we ate for lunch earlier in the day. She’s tells me, “The active ones are the best because when you put them on the hook they wiggle and that’s what the fish notice.” She knows this. She's older than me and she simply knows. This and everything. I worshipped her for it and she knew that I was always a blank slate for her to impart her knowledge upon.

When the idea hatched itself inside her head one summer evening at the cabin that she wanted a lamb, she lit it like a fire to light up all the darkness in the hill country night. She had a plan and she wanted me to help her. I was thrilled to be asked. Before the sun came up in the morning, we were going to go down the hill of our backyard, get the canoe and row across the lake. From the other side we would climb what was then a mountain to me but in reality is a rocky but steep hill. On the other side of that hill was a farm with sheep and goats, and most importantly to my sister, baby sheep and goats. To this day I do not know how she got that piece of information. And I also don’t know how she woke up on her own before the sun but she did that also and she jiggled me awake with much effort as I had lost a huge portion of interest when weighed against my desire to sleep. “That’s okay, I’ll go without you,” she said in a cool and dismissive whisper. Desperately not wanting to be left behind, I threw back the covers and wiggled out of my pajamas and into the first thing I saw, a still damp bathing suit on the floor. This naturally put me in whining mode of discomfort as we snuck down the hill in the darkness spread out like forever before us and forever behind. Marianne had a certain way of cutting me off mid-whine, which was to take my chin in her thumb and forefinger and turn my head however far it needed to be turned until my eyes were locked solid with hers and she’d hold us there for a minute and it would get me quiet as suddenly as the new sound of silence following the blast of a firecracker.

Down the path we walked and her steps were as silent as a shadow while mine were surely disturbing all the wildlife. Being quiet was second nature to Marianne, she moved as quiet as a snake on the water and only spoke when she needed to, when some need or instruction was to be conveyed. She held the canoe steady while I stepped in, stepped in herself and untied the rope. Pushing us away from the dock, she sliced her paddle into the water. Sitting in front, I charged myself with looking for hazards, and I turned my head back to smile at her. I could make out her dark square shoulders and strong arms expertly handling the paddle, moving it back and forth, right side to left, in a gently rhythm. I could hear the oar moving in a slide through the water and then the ripple behind the boat followed by the drops of water flying from the oar as she shifted to the other side. And then again, the slide, ripple and drops of water.

The memory at this point turns a corner from my own to that of my father’s voice telling the story, something I’ve heard him do so many times that it has consumed my own recollection. For reasons unknown to me, I most clearly remember his telling the story at one of my parents’ many cocktail parties, as they called them, one evening at our house in Houston. Those early-evening cocktail parties were always wonderful for me. I could roam the house and see my parents’ friends dressed smart, smell the women’s grown-up perfume, and hear the wonderful and adult sound of the ice clinking in their drink glasses. That sound to me was the definitive sound of adults, the sound that announced the difference between them and children, and I relished in hearing it. Dad is sitting in “his” chair, the red leather wing back chair that in my memory has stretched its proportions to being that of a throne. I’m standing at his knee, leaning into the familiarity of him but facing the guest to watch their eyes on him. One of his enormous hands is on his drink and the other is in the air punctuating his story. “Well, I wake up and I don’t see the girls. Betty is still asleep and so is Carl so I walk outside the back and there they are. I see them in the lake, canoeing towards the house. There is something else with them in the boat and I have to go back for my binoculars to see.” At this point, he puts his drink down and fills his hand instead with my shoulder. “Alison is just a tiny thing and she’s sitting in the front of the canoe holding onto a baby goat, of all things. Marianne is paddling like a pro and she has hold of a young lamb with her legs. If it wasn’t for Alison’s white hair, they’d look like two little brown Indians crossing that lake!” I look up at him and smile and then turn to smile at their friends, all giving him their full attention.

Dad continues the story, “When the girls get to the dock, I’m standing there and I tell them ‘Girls, the sheriff is here.’ ” At his knee, I nod my head up and down to the guests to confirm his words and I squirm with excitement because I know what’s coming next when he says, “He’s looking for some goat thieves!” At this, the friends break their silence into a shelf of laughter rising over my head and Dad pulls me onto his lap, his massive shoulders moving up and down with his own laughter. He says, “And you should have seen them. Alison sitting there with her eyes as big and white as her hair and turning back and forth from me to Marianne saying, ‘It was her idea Dad, it was her idea.’ ” And I did do exactly that. When I heard “sheriff” I pictured jail and not having any idea what jail was beyond the image of striped clothes and bars in a window, I still knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to be and figured I would be somehow excused if I wasn’t the one who thought it all up. What we didn’t know at the time was that Dad had called the man we stole the animals from and arranged to buy them from him. I loved him for that but Mom wasn’t too pleased. The goat, which we named Billy, and the lamb, Ramsy, accompanied us all the way back to Houston several weeks later in the back of the station wagon which thrilled us to no end for the entire seven-hour drive, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass playing in the eight-track, at my insistence, for most of the journey home, “It’s fun to be in America…”

No comments: