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The Life & Times of a Redheaded Mountain Witch
Up ahead of me and the kids: Arle is walking through the woods, stopping every now and then to look at a crashing just off to her left. Or her right. I never exactly see her do this because I am the one throwing the big rocks or fat sticks into the brush. What I do is: I make sure she’s moving ahead on the trail and then when I’m sure she’s not about to turn around: I launch one out through the air. Then by the time it makes a huge racket (I’m not going to lie/ I’m going for a sort of a frightened nesting Yeti meets flushed ruffed grouse vibe here), I am spun around, standing still, looking back at the kids straggling along.
Basically, I am trying to scare the hell out of my wife as she moves through the forest.
Of course, this kind of thing can only have the desired effect the first time you do it. Maybe- and that’s a far-flung maybe, dude, but maybe it can work once more after that initial success if you wait a long time between monster crashes. Which I don’t, obviously. I am beside myself with a sort of manic glee as I hurl these things through the air, act oblivious, stand in the exact same way/ looking back down the trail we’ve just come up, as if a family of Bigfoots are all hidden in the underbrush along a well-traveled interstate hiking trail AND perfectly spaced from one another at like fifty yard intervals; a chaotic snake of humanity led by a sole quiet/reflective redheaded family snakehead slithers along the trail popping off loud squawks and giggling and just about any other sound that would scare the shit out of any deer that isn’t a straight-up fool.
The scenario in which I throw things just to frighten Arle in the woods is a flawed one from the start and I know it. I mean, the entire reason she’s up there ahead of us, tender-footing through nature a little bit on her own while the small family equivalent of Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise and a whole 1978 bar full of good-time Floridians come following in her silent- almost wild born- footsteps is because I had a little panic attack back when we were in the car a little while ago.
And I might have snipped at her.
Now she’s upset and I know she ought to be. But I’m the worst at sorry sometimes.
I don’t know how to hack it up. I cough and wheeze; I drag bounce my tight steel cables and my drag hooks along the dark muddy bottom of my soul, but I can’t hook the goddamn body.
In the state park parking lot, she even tells me to say it. She has to TELL me that she will be okay, or at least okay enough to hike alongside my terrible ass, if I can just manage to bang out one humble pebble of common decency. She doesn’t put it quite as bad arty as that, but you know what I’m saying.
As the kids are outside the car swapping Vans for snow boots, promoting sticks to walking sticks, she looks at me standing out the back of the car, standing there digging around for something I’m not even looking for, and says it. And I hear the distress in her beautiful voice, the long mountain thorn sticking out of her pale throat.
Aren’t you even going to say you’re sorry?
I mumble it back.
God, it sucks. It’s the worst sorry ever and we both know that. But whatever. She doesn’t let it ruin the day. She unfurls herself from my dirty Honda, rising up into the cold afternoon sun, whipping like a battle flag in the silence that comes right before certain death.
I don’t know what to do. I’m hung up on my own bullshit. I’m sorry/ not sorry. It hurts me to hurt her feelings.
The only thing I can think to do aside from sorry is the last thing you would probably do, huh? It’s the last thing any right-minded person would do. Of course it is. Even my own three kids who make up the rest of our squad today are looking at me strange.
What the fuck am I doing?
Oh my god.
I’m heaving cannonball-sized mountain stones into the woods right by where Arle is walking.
Arle is just standing there looking at me. Looking at Dad, my kids clock to themselves, looks of wonder smeared across their butter bread mugs. Arle: not mad: kind of smiling: but kind of not. And look at me. Look at me! I’m holding back 80,000 acres of flooded madness with all the muscles in my fat face. My grin is black magic cracks, now you see them now you don’t, but they are coming and that is certain.
My wife moves/ I can tell by telepathy or something/ and right away/ stood there in a slew of light shafts that look like pipe organ pipes/ I immediately lift up an ancient softball stone that has likely been laying undisturbed for 85,000 years/ and I throw it right by the trail, right by Arle.
Like an insane person.
Like a caveman.
Like a caveman trying to say I’m sorry.
It might embarrass her now for me to write these things, but it doesn’t matter to me. I will embarrass her, take that risk. Because beneath the words I have been plotting more. To get at more. To drill down deeper into our unified strangeness even when that seems impossible.
All true loves are wordless exchanges.
We waste time and money and energy on talk. The heart is a raw bloody muscle and it has no ears. Love is the same, I figure. The beats are muted/ 1am club parking lots when the band is onstage/ bwoombwoombwoom/ smattered applause through cinder block walls.
You could smoke a half a joint out in the October night there by yourself. Or with her. Both of you listening. Both of you hearing.
Don’t say anything!
Hush. I love you, but shut up.
Just listen to everything happening around us right this second.
I have a photo of her, of Arle from when she was young. It fascinates me and I can’t explain it. In the picture she is maybe 12. Tall. Gangly. But I sense other things, messages from the past.
Static radio voices rising up from the blur of the girl in the red and white Little League uniform. I think she’s playing first base. I think she’s looking forward, like she ought to be/ towards the pitcher and the batter and the plate and all/ but also- more importantly- also maybe at the ground a little too.
I hear the voice trying to say things.
Arle was a cool kid. She played football on an all-guys team when she was around this same age as she is in this photo. She had a younger brother and sister. Her parents were still together. They still are. They lived in a small town in central Pennsylvania. Deer hunting. High school educations. Dirt track racing. Patriotism. Booze. Weed. Then harder drugs. Bright Saturday mornings on the baseball field, the PA popping/feeding back/ ‘Good morning folks, it’s gonna be a full day of baseball and I want to remind you that he concession stand will be open all day and we have three kinds of soup...”/dogs barking/ Dairy Queen breath/ steel mill spaceship landed forever/ school bus laughter/ Sunday Amish/ dead raccoon hit last night/ car crashes on country roads/ sirens out there in the distant darkness.
I often think that I loved her long before I knew her.
Is that possible?
It must be.
Why can one person steal me like this and talk to me through photos from across time and space? Staring at the infield dirt; or looking down at something blowing across the field; or laughing but holding it in at what your mom just hollered from the bleachers at you; or maybe even thinking, wondering- in the middle of goddamn close 3-2 game- about where you will ever end up in this world.
Who will I be? Who will I love? Who will love me? Who is up there… standing there in the road…who IS that?
Who the heck is that?
Standing there at first, a girl who can hit better than most of the boys. A girl who can throw harder than most of the boys. A girl, quite frankly, better than most of the boys. The count is 2-2, 2 out. There’s a chubby kid on third and he’s dancing off the bag because he wants the plate and he will get it.
Her mom digs out the Kodak and aims it at her daughter and pushes down on the button as the pitcher checks the runner/ as the coach looks at his clipboard/ as the concession stand ladies chatter while they trade chips for coins/ as the right fielder watches the cars on the road/ as a crow flies out of a tree by the parking lot towards the mountain in the distance where the teenagers spark their bowls to the garbled sounds of the PA drifting like the smoke of an endless dream out across the valley and up there through those woods, those old Pennsylvania woods haunted by ghosts who never knew baseball- or cared about it anyways- but who now smell the oniony B.O. of young men smoking cigarettes up on the sprawl of rocks as the aluminum bat clinks far away and the parents and brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors all cheer at once as the ball rolls straight at the redhead at first base just as she is leaving the daydream and the hit ball rockets through the green lush grass/ knocks a bee/ nicks a stone/ cuts an angle/ bad hop city/ but the girl leans her left arm into her long growing ribs/ winces/ scoops it up/ Keith Hernandez/ turns and sprints to the bag a moment before the runner arrives/ before the chubby kid finds home/ just as the ghosts on the mountain creep up behind the teenage tokers and a fat May deer above ‘em all takes a deep drag of morning sky as a shark kills a seal by an iceberg somewhere far out there in the world and that’s not all.
That photo from that day when the tall redhead was at first and looking down a little at the ground or whatever? It’s blurry. The shooters hands were probably shaking. All these years later, I’m still so excited about that. The thing is perfect in blur. The blur is everything. The blur is the voice talking to her from down the road.
You know, sometimes I wonder like hell how I have come to be part of this story, of her story. I mean, how could it end up like this? Or how could it not?
Does that make any kind of sense to you?
It’s like, do you get what I’m saying about love?
There are times, many times, when I want to be better. I want to do better. I want to be more, mean more to the world, stand up more to the shit-talkers, take more from the greedy, and share more with the people who lack.
But also, I lay around a lot. I curl up in a ball in the late afternoon, my work done for the day, and I am consumed by the rush of a dark train barreling through. I have seen sunshine twist itself into that very rare kind of inside-out dark moss sky that rolls in right before tornadoes. I have seen that surround me on clear calm days when the fish are biting and the baseballs are traveling far off the bat.
I have known this type of afternoon collapse a lot this past year. Balled-up and drained for no reason. Chest in/chest out. Breath/ breath gone.
I have taken stock from varied angles, tried hard to see a world moving forward, as worlds do, without me, without the weakest ones sloshing themselves all over the kitchen floor. But I can’t see it straight. If I could do everything over would I? Would I recreate myself in another mold if it was possible?
I don’t know. I think I might be afraid to. But still. I don’t know. I don’t regret most of my run-ins with the people I have known. I have laid my burdens at their feet sometimes, and they were doing the same. Most of them, the worst of them never knew it either. Those are the worst kind of friends, family, boxcar travelers. So many people never recognize themselves at all. It made me tired.
But not with Arle, you see. I can’t place it but there is something there that I don’t recognize because I don’t think it comes along all that often.
I guess what I’m saying is that she knows how to handle me when I’m that sad, that down/ balled-up like a potato bug. Dark as a dungeon/ layin’ up on the bed. She knows how to touch my hair just enough to pull me back down off the mountain where the mountain ghosts all gather in the evening sun and the whistling breeze is creepy and true.
I will let you in on a secret. Just a little something between you and me.
Here it is.
I am pretty sure she is 10,000 years old. I am pretty sure she has known more than any of us. And I am pretty fucking sure that she is saving me from myself not as an act of charity or whatever, but because… get this.
Because her heart is pure.
I know, right? Did you just puke in your mouth a little?
Ha. Good. Whatever. Who cares.
I’m a cool-rockin’ American depression dog married to a 10,000-year-old soulful witch who plays first base.
Fuck the world.
The other day I watched my own kids watching me shot-put a small pumpkin-size rock into a fallen pine tree out on a section of the Mid State Trail in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. The sun was streaking down through the canopy and the day was a good one. Even if I had almost ruined it by getting pissed that there was ice on the backroads where Arle had tried to lead us so we could hike to a fire tower and find a geocache.
There we were.
Caught out there in a moment in time. Me flexing my crazy, guns in the sun. Me turning the car around after only a mile or so of spotty ice, mostly nothing at all. Me panicking and imagining the worst: the Honda hitting a small patch of snow/ the snow rising up off the road because it was the Abominable Snowman’s all balled-up and depressed in the middle of the freakin’ state forest dirt road/ the Honda tumbling down the ridge/ somersaulting/ smashing/ the kids crying/ then the silence as we slammed into a tree/ birds chirping/ all of us down in the deep dark forest never to be found again.
I get so out there some times.
The real day was different.
The kids had tacos and personal pan pizzas in the back seat. Charlie had a blue crystal meth Mountain Dew. I had my coffee mixed with hot chocolate. Arle had her pineapple Hint. I had a couple Altoids. Violet had her chili pepper corn chips. Henry had mozzarella sticks. We were so far from rolling down the side of a mountain that I think that even if we had done it, the redhead beside me would have probably found a way to save us all.
To levitate the car, start shooing it back up the mountainside.
The kids following her with their drinks.
Wild turkeys following her with their offerings; seeds, grub worms, that kind of shit.
A mama bear and her cubs following her with loving protection in their eyes.
An army of opossums following her, humming ‘I’m On Fire’/ the whole song/ on a loop.
My kids, our kids, following her/ slipping in the wet leaves/ up the steep bank/ sipping at their drinks/ smiling/ watching her work.
An eagle flying over her, begging her to take his photo.
And me. Good ol’ General Potato Bug bringing up the rear. Leading his army of endless bullshit across the land, drenched in awe/ dripping in shame.
Halt men! I holler and my troops, they halt.
Then, well, …you know.
I pick up a cantaloupe-sized Pennsylvania mountain rock and throw it six feet to the left of Arle and it clacks down onto another rock in the middle of a bunch of mountain laurel just as I turn away and act like I’m looking over at something I saw off to the east or whatever.
I hear her laugh a little and she doesn’t try to hide it, and it adds years to my life, I think.
I bite into my bottom lip, turned away from the procession: my smile shattering my blues, but I don’t want her to see.
Someday soon though.
Someday soon, my love.
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