Life Needs More Diving Boards
The town of Ironbridge sprang to life in the foothills of Mt. Racine during the coal boom of the 1850’s. Coal had been discovered east of Ironbridge in 1855 by one Noah Jordan and, like many towns of its time, it grew from a need to house the men who blackened their lungs each day in the underground mines. For those first 100 years, and indeed for many years after its incorporation in 1964, Ironbridge was home mostly to men who were more comfortable in shit-stained boots than wingtips, and who took a plug of tobacco with their morning coffee; farmers and ranchers and the women who loved them enough to give up most of life’s more urban pleasures in exchange for open spaces and outdoor plumbing.
And so it was for nearly 130 years. In my youth, “downtown” Ironbridge boasted little more than a post office, a general store, a handful of family-owned businesses and a two-man police force to keep peace. The pizza joint, with its checkercloth and sawdust, (the jovial, red-faced owner’s two young sons perched on milk crates washing dishes) and a cowboy/biker bar, the only real enticements to lure outsiders across its boarders.
With the coming of an 18-hole golf course in the late 1980’s, the country club and its element soon followed. The populace pendulum had completed its swing, and the dusty streets, where once tread bar room brawlers and cave-dwelling pirates, gave way to weather forecasters and rock stars; their sports cars snaking the freshly tarred streets of a shiny, modernized Ironbridge.
I arrived in this soon-to-be-ex-cow town somewhere between these two epochs. My parents had married and begun bearing the first of their three children just a few years prior to the cultural explosion that would come to be remembered as “The 60’s.” While many young people spent this period in our history immersed in the experimentation of mind expansion and free-love, my parents experimented with cloth vs. disposable, and immersed themselves in the challenges of parenthood and the purchase of their first home. And it was into this first home, a brand new ranch-style in the shadow of Mt. Racine, that I was born.
As best as I can remember, mine was a mostly uneventful childhood. I had friends and toys and plenty to eat. I even worked at that checkercloth and sawdust pizza joint in my latter years of high school. As an elementary school kid I’d spend my summers at our neighborhood pool, crowded with other young families, staking out a towel-sized patch of hot concrete on which to bake my shivering, skinny-boy body between forays into the ocean-sized mass of waterlogged chlorine.
There was a diving board in those days and we’d spend our afternoons suffering gut-shots from imaginary pistols, dying in dramatic falls from the diving board while holding our spilling innards. Many years later [well after college and post-graduate employment,] I had occasion to visit the pool and was saddened to discover that, in addition to being nearly empty, at some point during my absence the diving board had been removed; another casualty in the War on Fun in this new era of litigation and overly-protective parents.
Those of us who grew up in the 70’s weren’t afraid of the dangers inherent to such things as diving boards and huffing gasoline, nor were our parents. It’s not that our parents didn’t care, they just never thought about it. Pools had diving boards and lawn mowers had gasoline and that’s just the way it was. They never considered whether or not these things were safe. Besides, there was a much greater separation between the lives of parents and children back then. We weren’t tethered by cell phones, and they didn’t feel compelled to be our playmates, choosing instead to engage in more adult pursuits like tending the yard or having the neighbors over for pinochle and gin. Kids were on their own and happy to be so. We’d go to the pool or ride our bikes for miles in any direction, leaving the house early on a Saturday morning (after all the good cartoons were over and the only kid programming left to watch was The Big Blue Marble) and not returning until we got hungry or the streetlights came on.
Childhood was simple. There was never a question about how to live, we just lived. We knew the rules, where the boundaries were and what was expected of us. But somewhere along the road to adulthood life became complicated, the maps and road signs blurry. And it finally dawned on me one day that I’ve never understood how to live as an adult. That what appeared to come easy to others had somehow always managed to elude me; the simple expectations and contentment for routine; marriage, a 9-5 gig followed by an evening meal, then an hour or two of television before bed, only to be up at 6:00 AM the next day to do it again. Repeat daily for 30 years. If you’re lucky maybe you get to spend two weeks of each year at a cottage near the sea or a cabin in the woods before retiring to a townhouse in a warm suburb where you spend your remaining days learning how to play canasta and praying the kids come to visit more than once every other year.
My post-college years were spent in jobs that, while fulfilling monetary needs, did little to stoke the fires of internal contentment. They were simply a means to an end. Bills needed to be paid, children needed clothes and braces and new toys.
As I said good-bye to my 30’s, a series of lay-offs prompted me to pursue more creative endeavors. But when the life of a freelance writer proved to require more resourcefulness than I was able to muster, I somehow, miraculously, managed to wheedle my way into a corporate position that met both my financial obligations and to a lesser degree, my desire to put words on paper, even if those words proclaimed nothing more intoxicating than the benefits of a new shipping line, or an upcoming rate increase on the transport of frozen fish parts.
Despite this apparent windfall of good luck, I spent most of my fourth decade raging against an indifferent adversary, doing my best to thwart the world’s attempts to lock me in step. I railed against my conventional life in destructive and hurtful ways, believing that such actions would fill some indefinable hole left unfertilized by more traditional pursuits, and perhaps bear fruit. Or at the very least, provide material for the great novel that in some distant future – a time when both muse and ambition would at last strike simultaneously – I would write in a feverish glut of brilliance.
By the time I turned 50, the world and I had settled into an unspoken, if uneasy truce. But the economic downturn that began years earlier with the dot.com crash continued to sputter, and when my corporate job made the strategic decision to relocate to the dirty South, I once again found myself at loose ends. It was about this time that my wife made the strategic decision to cut her losses, namely me, and strike out on her own. In all honesty I couldn’t blame her.
OK, Mrs. Callahan, it’s time to “Choose! Your! Future!” Behind Curtain #1 we have – Your Husband! Fresh from his 3rd lay-off in six years! In addition to watching him mope around the house you’ll also get to enjoy his two year bout with depression and alcohol abuse! Or you can have what’s behind Curtain #2…Karl! A 39-year old yoga instructor! Karl has great abs, money in the bank and a time-share in Oahu! What’ll it be, Mrs. Callahan!?”
Hell, at that point she’d have probably been happy with Johnny Olsen decked out in overalls and a straw hat, sitting atop a donkey behind Curtain #3.
In any event, the split was amicable enough. The kid had been on her own for a few years, and what little assets we’d managed to accumulate during our marriage hardly necessitated an attorney to divvy up. We each got a decent chunk of equity out of the house and we put all the furnishings on Craigslist and split the take. “Curtain #2” had his own place so there was no need to hang on to 20-year old garage sale furniture. Gayle moved in with Karl and the two of them immediately left for Oahu. As for me, well, I put most of my money into an IRA, picked up a slightly battered, but still roadworthy Coachmen, and pointed her east.
The beauty of unemployment and RV’s is that nothing and no one dictates your schedule. There’s no clock to punch, no meetings to attend, no responsibilities tying you to any particular locale. And because you’re self-contained there’s no rent to pay. Gas, maintenance and food become your only expenses, and, depending on how long you can stand the smell, the occasional laundry mat. Within four days I found myself enjoying my morning coffee beside a swollen creek half a mile from a turnout off US 93, a few miles from downtown Missoula, Montana.
Missoula is known as the Garden City of the Northwest. I liked the sound of that, so I’d pulled off the highway into a small clearing and went to sleep. I woke the next morning to the sound of water splashing over rocks, birds in the trees and cars on the distant highway.
Being free of all chains for the first time in 30 years you’d have figured I’d just keep on keepin’ on; see what the big, old US of A had to offer. But that all changed when less than two hours later, as I tarried over a local paper at The Shack, a jumbo stack of flapjacks, eggs over-easy, country potatoes and a thermos of black coffee arrived on the wings of an angel. Her name tag read “Melody,” and she had thick auburn hair, eyes like emeralds, and a smile that stopped my heart. Not to mention a body that wouldn’t quit, which she literally proved to me less than seven hours later, forcing me to cry uncle as she rode me like a mechanical bull atop the fold-out bed that doubled as my dinette set.
Sharing a beer and a post-coital joint up on the roof of the RV, me in my shorts, her in my tee-shirt, the late afternoon sun bleeding through a monstrous willow tree that drank along the shores of the creek, she told me her story.
Born and raised in Missoula her father took off when she was four and her mother went to work full-time in a canning factory. She’d spent her teens drinking in dry creek beds and fumbling in the beds of beat up pick-up trucks with the sons of local factory workers, waiting for the day when she’d leave for college. A decent student, she’d wanted to become a writer and had been accepted at several universities, but her mother got sick with the cancer right before graduation, and Melody postponed college to care for her, taking a job at The Shack to supplement her mother’s disability insurance. Mom was tougher than the doctors gave her credit for, and she hung on until the following spring. By then, what little money she’d saved was gone, and most of her friends had already gone away to school. She told herself that she’d work for a year and build up her stakes before reapplying to the universities. That was nearly 7 years ago. Now she takes as many shifts as the café will give her, dates an occasional traveling salesman, and has a desk drawer full of unfinished short stories.
“So there you go; The Sad and Troubled Life of Melody Barlow.” She’d moved to the edge of the RV where she dangled her bare legs over the side.
“Hell, your life is practically a cliché from of a Larry Brown story.”
“Tell me about it. Or better yet, don’t. Tell me your story instead.”
“Not much to tell,” I said, finishing my beer and tossing the empty over the side, “Normal, middle-class upbringing; college, a 26-year marriage, a string of jobs, one kid and one divorce. Now I’m on a journey to figure out what to do with the second half of my life. Hell, when I say it out loud it sounds like more of a cliché than your life.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Your kid; boy or girl?”
“Oh. Girl. She’s 26. Lives in LA. Trying to get into the movie business.”
“Is she an actress?”
“No. She’s more of a writer but she wants to make movies. Right now she reads scripts for several small studios.”
“Are you close?”
“Once upon a time I’d have said yes. Now I’m not so sure. I think she just got tired of working at keeping up a relationship with me.”
“Why? Are you an asshole?”
I laughed. “It’s entirely possible. I guess you’ll have to judge for yourself. But to answer your question, no I don’t think she thinks I’m an asshole. I suppose I just chose to do other things with my time rather than being a father to her. Yeah, I guess I am an asshole.”
“Hmmm. Sounds like. What happened with your wife?”
“Another cliché, she left me for her yoga instructor.”
“Nice. And now, suffering the Curse of the Middle-aged Male, you’ve taken to the open road, the final frontier, searching for truth and meaning in a meaningless world; one last grope for the golden ring of freedom.”
“Um. Yeah, I guess so. But it didn’t sound nearly so pathetic when I bought the RV.”
“Yeah, well life can be pretty pathetic sometimes. And speaking of pathetic I’ve got the early shift tomorrow, and we start pouring coffee at 6 AM, so…”
She stood up on the roof and stretched, allowing me a full view of her backside. She caught me looking and smiled. She looked out over the creek then down at me with those big emeralds.
“This was nice. Will I see you again, or are you hitting that open road?”
“I’ll see you for breakfast.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She smiled and pulled off the tee-shirt, tossing it to me. She stood naked looking off at the sunset, then placed her hands on the small of her back and bent backwards with audible relief. She shot me a sexy little grin and squeezed her tits together before scampering bare-assed down the ladder. After retrieving her clothes from the camper, she dressed in the dying sunlight as I watched from my perch atop the Coachman. With a final wave over the roof of her battered Fiat, she disappeared toward the highway in a churn of dust. I stared at the road until the dust settled, then leaned back in my chair, sparked up another joint, and watched the clouds explode in pinks and oranges, searching for angels until my eyes hurt.