Standing at the bridge over the canal. I’ve measured the distance off before with a pedometer and I know this bridge is exactly one mile from the parking lot, so if I walk here and back I’ve clocked in my two miles and the attendant feeling of virtue.
I take my broad hat off, though I like to deceive myself that it makes me look like Ansel Adams, and hold it in my hand so I can stick my head between the wooden safety rails and look down, straight down into the water. If you hold yourself at the right angle, the sunlight glaring off the surface is off set and you can see down into the clearness to the bottom
Below there is a shallow forest of seaweed, or maybe canal weed, that waves in invisible winds under the surface like a field of fat flowers. Something orange and alive weaves among the weeds, maybe a snake. I can’t tell. The fish gather here, and like cows in a field they all seem to line up in the same direction, as though letting that undersea breeze blow back their hair. They’re small fry, I don’t know what kind from up here. There is a fish among them big enough to gobble them down, but they ignore him, as if they know, because it’s their business to know, he’s not hungry today. There is something dangling from his lip that could be a fish hook.
I wish I could look down there and see an octopus.
I’m thinking about an octopus this morning because I was reading a book review about them. They have every evidence of not only unusual intelligence, but sentience. They are self-conscious, moody, silly, resourceful, with distinctive personalities and even attitudes toward human divers they meet.
They express their moods with color schemes that are constantly changing. And their brains are vastly different from ours. Their primordial ancestor was different. We share a brain and a spinal cord structure common with almost all animals. Octopuses don’t. Their neurons are distributed from a brain center and then down their limbs. Their arms are where part of their brains are actually located. They have no skeleton internal or external. A moderately small octopus can easily fit itself into a discarded beer bottle and back. Octopuses in lab tanks have slithered under the door crack at night, down the hall, into the vending machine to grab a snack and then back to their tanks. Their brains are the closest we can get to meeting an extraterrestrial intelligence.
I look down on the fish, leaning out over the bridge, a silver haired man slipping towards geezerhood but still thinking like a child. I wonder how the world looks to an octopus. When they aim that human eye at us, what do they see?
A turtle with a red ear stripe, like a tear, is looking up at me. I see the turtle. The turtle sees me. Hello turtle.
I remember Terry.
We stood on a bridge like this. I was sixteen. She was seventeen. We were both in high school. Neither of us was anyone’s idea of a winner, but Terry had just damaged her life. She had gotten knocked up by the handsome lout on the third floor of our apartment building. She had given birth. Her mother beat her occasionally. And in spite of her shame, she was defiantly going back to high school to finish and find herself a future.
And Terry talked to me. She felt I was the only one she could talk to. Why did she think so? I have always loved women, their conversation, their complexity, their nonsense. Their depth of soul. But did I love them as a young man? At my age, memory is like an archeological dig. One has to examine the evidence. The evidence is that I have always loved women. And they loved me, chastely (alas).
“I like to stand on a bridge,” Terry said. “When I was in the nut hospital, at Glenwood Hills, I’d stand on the bridge over the stream.”
“Not to jump?”
“I thought about it. Twice. I almost jumped the second time, but I knew it wasn’t deep enough to kill me. That’s just stupid. You just get hurt. Which is stupid. If you shoot yourself in the head with a 22 it’s the same. The bullet’s so fucking small you just hurt yourself, but you don’t die. That’s stupid.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.”
“You know, “ she said, leaning against me, “when you look down from a bridge and watch the water passing under it feels likes it’s carrying all your troubles away with it.”
“So the bridge was good for you.”
“It saved my life.”
Those turtles below. I don’t think those are native to this latitude. These are the abandoned ones. The disowned ones. These are, or are descended from, freed slave turtles. Baby pet shop turtles, languishing in their shit in plastic turtle bowls with a little plastic island with a forlorn plastic palm tree; bought from Woolworth and Ben Franklin dime stores, that smelled like toffee peanuts roasting, these stores, like sensual circuses of small wonders, kids today have never seen or heard of. Then the children had to move away. On their way out they spared Patches or Pokey, or whatever the suffering critter’s name that fatal dive into the toilet bowl and instead tossed them into the canal. A turtle always knows how to be a turtle. They switch gratefully from dead dried flies shaken from a jar to live minnows they have to chase. In the fish hunt and the long sunny naps lounging on logs they rediscover themselves. They gain their strength. They rejoice in their turtleness. The child is forgotten and lost to time.
A dog goes loping behind me on a leash, sniffing. The leash is held in the hand of a young woman in black shiny spandex, tight as Wonder Woman. The turtle drops his head and vanishes. I put my hat back on and head back.