Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A View From the Bridge



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.



11 comments:

  1. Such a beautiful sense of place, both in space and in the mind. Exquisitely done. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you Sacchi! I haven't been a very good blog mate lately. I need to start checking in more and see how everyone is coming along these days. Thank you for reading my stuff, in spite of my negligence.

    Garce

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  3. As a kid, I got one of those turtles at the state fair. One escaped from its bowl and lasted months in the reaches of the house before we found it in a cabinet under the kitchen sink. It must have found enough to eat. I remember being so sad when it disappeared and so happy when it returned.

    BTW- Polarized glasses will improve your view from the bridge. And... the .22 is actually the preferred caliber for assassins. A .22 delivered in the thin back of the skull will hit the thick inner forehead, then carom around inside. Yecch.

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    1. Hi Daddy X!

      I think I must have gone through about three or four of those poor things, the one I remember clearly was "Patches" who soldiered on in misery longer than the rest.

      I also loved "chameleons", this skinny pet shop lizards that could change from brown to green for no discernible reason. I lost a lot of those too. Now that I live in the deep south I see these lizards every day, skipping from bushes and house plants. Some of them are really big. And of course the turtles, which get bigger than a dinner plate on their own, far away from us. These animals don't love in the way cats and dogs too. I wonder if that was partly why it was so hard to make them happy.

      Garce

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    2. Horned toads were also available. I had two at the same time. I remember taking them outside so they could catch little insects in the grass with their too-quick-to-follow tongues. I hear they're now an endangered species. Some critters just aren't candidates for domesticity.

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  4. A lovely, meditative piece, Garce. I also remember, exactly, the little turtles you describe, the plastic bowls and the palm trees. Do they no longer sell these to kids? Are kids no longer interested?

    As for not being a "good blog mate", you show up every two weeks and post these breath-taking essays... seems "good" to me.

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    1. Hi Lisabet!

      I've seen them a few times in pet stores, I remember when I lived in Puerto Rico sometimes you'd see people selling them on street lights in plastic bags. Red eared turtles sometimes carried salmonella virus which lead to their downfall as common pets in the US. You do see them in pet stores along with more exotic, pricey lizards, and there's always a section on fancy doo-dads you can get to set them up. Gecko lizards, so common in the tropics, have become popular city pets because they eat cockroaches. They were a craze in New York for a while. People would buy a gecko and just turn them loose in the apartment. You'd never see them again but you'd hear them skittering around at night and the roach population would disappear.

      Life as a turtle has gotten better though, since the turtle tanks now are more spacious and deep with plants and little caves, so an animal can experience their "turtleness" more. Talk about being in the right place.It seems to be the rule that everything wants to be what it is, and a turtle wants to be a turtle.

      Garce

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  5. When I was a kid the dimestore turtles were painted with bright colors and sometimes little floral designs. The paint kept the shells from growing properly, or maybe damaged them in some other way, and eventually painting turtles was abolished. At least one sign of progress.

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  6. Garce, thank you for the visit to a special place and the poignant reminiscence. My bridge is a beach on Cape Ann on the North Shore of Massachusetts that I often visit in the dead of winter, and where random thoughts and memories coalesce, some bittersweet.

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  7. Beautiful description, and the accompanying photo helps us imagine it. Nice to think that abandoned pet turtles could have a second life in the canal. I hope "Terry" (if she was an actual person) also had a better, second phase of life. Going back to school sounds like a combination of common sense and hope.

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  8. Everyone here is talking about turtles, but to me it's all about the octopus. I think all the time about the stuff you describe. It's so wild to me that they're so smart, so apparently sentient. One of the coolest things I've ever seen was an octopus eating its lunch, opening a puzzle box to do it. Glad you brought all that up, and that you appreciate it too :)

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