Pale Light, Burning Bright, Even Now (Part 1)

Many, many nights, we talked. After I shoveled snow off your garden, the poppies finally bloomed in the Spring. When we woke, we were like these poppies, as the sun shone through the open window. My kettle of tea whistled joyously, and you calmed it by switching off the burner.

A beam of pure essence shot up my body when you first touched me. You put a hand on my index finger and squeezed it lightly, goosebumps razing my skin.

Then, one summer’s afternoon, you left.

And, like a midsummer night’s dream, I started to question whether or not you ever existed. Flesh or spirit? Woman or mirage?

It was so balmy. The birds in the trees twittered like thunder. My favorite show on Television was on while I cooked breakfast for us. It wasn’t abrupt. You left gradually, like the melting of an ice sculpture. Our relationship lost definition over time, and with application of heat, its crystalline edges dulled. Our desires decided to melt into confusion and hesitation and our mouths refused to open for each other.

That afternoon, after the program ended, I was spreading Tupelo honey on my toast. I watched the honey glisten in that golden light. Watching it, I felt something intangible slide away, so slowly it seemed like nothing. I looked at the light hitting the honey, at the bubbles within the goo. It slid down my blackened bread, and as I tilted it further, it dawned on me that today would be the last time I saw you. You would be gone. You would not return that evening, and the sweet potatoes I made would be sitting there in the oven, waiting to be eaten.

And for many nights, I would sit on the edge of the bed, sometimes with a tear in my left eye, but usually just sitting there, thinking. I would hold a photograph in my hands under the lamplight in the growing darkness and quiescence, just looking at the picture. There she was, on a swing, and there he was, perched on the precipice of the jungle gym, his grand smile betraying his sense of triumph and virility. The sky was so very teal in that photograph, more teal than the sky was earlier that afternoon and beyond, forevermore. Like you, the sky as it was in those years would never, ever return to be. I would sit there for an hour, maybe two, every night, in that spot under the lamplight, with my back slightly hunched or else on the bed, lying down – simply looking at the photograph, studying it and finding it pleasing, until I would finally become tired and yawn, pulling the covers over me and pulling the lamp switch off, ‘click-click’.

Every day, my dog and I go to the park and grow a little older each time. She frolics and pulls me along the entire time, her leash almost choking her neck with her earnestness. I walk as fast as I can. I don’t want to choke her, I would never want that. She sniffs at nooks in the tree roots, sniffs the moldy mushrooms under the sticks and mud and steps all over them, or else peeing in a pile of hyacinths and pawing at her newfound territory with her hind legs. She pulls me along, searching, always searching for something, her snout going this way and that, and I do my best to keep up. My legs get tired sometimes. I now have a bit of arthritis in my feet. Sometimes, I have to sit down and take a break, my feet ache so bad. My little dog is impatient, expends too much energy panting and crooning, wanting to walk again. But I can’t do it that quickly.

Many children play in the park in the morning. One little girl walked up to me one day and gave me a Marigold. She said, “Please take this life as a token of gratitude.” She turned about face before I could say a word and then skipped off. It was one of the more random acts of kindness, and I was appreciative, though a little taken aback. I stood there for a moment looking at the flower. It was almost in full bloom. Then I wandered from the play structure to the basketball courts. Some tall black boys were playing a game. I sat down on a bench and watched them for a while, keeping my little dog in my lap.

After the game finished, a young man with corn rows walked up to us sitting there and he said to me, “Ay, you trying to run?” I had to refuse. My arthritis wouldn’t allow it. In my day, I played all the time. I could even dunk. I am quite tall, as you know. But I played too much, and that took its toll on my leg and feet joints.

The boy shrugged and walked back. “Let’s run it back Davonte.”

But then, they only had nine guys, because Lamarcus had gone downhill to eat some ribs that were done cooking at their family’s BBQ.

“Lazy ass. Ay, you trying to run, man?” Everyone wanted me to play hoops with them because of my height and my athletic build.

“Naw, breh, he ain’t running.” But then, an inexplicable fire kindled within me – I felt it in the soles of my feet and palms of my hands. It tingled and it was hot – and I knew I wanted to play. I couldn’t help myself. It was how I got arthritis in the first place. I would say, no more games, I’m done – but then the fire inside me would ignite once again.

I tied little Sally up to a sapling near the water fountain and said, “Yeah, I’ll play.”

It was tough. You know, when you finally decided you had had enough of me, I was 32. It’s been three years.

I would have liked to have been able to drive on those boys, who were all under 25 at the most, but I got picked a couple of times. My saving grace was my game in the paint. I grew up in the 80’s, when Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon and David Robinson were in the NBA. I learned my post game by watching them. Some of the younger boys made fun of me because these days, posting up is a lost art. They were the ones who only shot three-pointers, and probably only made about 30% of all their shots. At the end of the game, my squad all gave me skin and smiles, nodding in approval. One boy, who had a short flat top and looked about twenty-four, gave me a little bear hug. “Man, you raw, bruh! Come play again! My cousins are gonna eat now. You’re welcome to join us, if you want.”

I said, out oif breath still, “thanks, my friend.” I was sweating and breathing hard. My feet were on fire. I looked over to Sally, sitting near the sapling, tied there and looking lonely. “You had some good assists. Great way to stay in front of your man, too. I don’t know, I am hungry, but I don’t want to intrude.”

He looked back. His cousins were chatting and laughing, and one was doubled over from a joke cracked by Davonte. But they all headed slowly downhill, where you could see smoke from the grill, and smell cooking poultry.

“Well, if you or your dog is hungry, you’re welcome to join us. Ay, Davonte! I seen you tell that old joke again!…”

He started to walk back too, but I stopped him before he took three steps. He turned around, and I asked him for some aspirin. He looked at me blankly, and then said, “Ah yeah. You’re not young, like us, huh? You an old school baller.” He smiled grandly again and said to come on downhill. He would ask his mom if she had anything.

By the time I got downhill, my feet cramped up, and my ankle joints throbbed and ached. I realized I was in a fix before I even got downhill. When I reached the BBQ, everybody looked at me.

The boy with the flat top went up to a tall, regal looking woman with luxurious long dreadlocks. She was talking with another woman with short hair at the table. She said, before he could speak, looking at me, “Have you offered him any food, Jamil?”

“Yes, mama, but he needs aspirin, too. Do you have any?”

“Your grandma has some. She’s over there playing with your sisters.” She pointed to an elderly lady on a chair,. knitting and talking animatedly to a group of young girls sitting cross-legged around her.

By now, I could hardly move. I limped the remaining distance between myself and the table where the two women sat and extended my hand to Jamil’s mother.

“Hi, I’m Darren.”

“Toni,” she replied, smiling. “Nice to meet you. I saw you over there on the courts. You got some moves! Playing like Charles Barkley over there.”

“Thank you, ma’am. But now I can hardly walk. I have arthritis in my feet.”

She looked down at my feet, so dumbfounded at those words that I couldn’t help but chuckle a little. She held her expression. It was then I remembered Sally, still tied to the sapling.

“Oh. I left my dog up the hill.” I tried to walk uphill but my feet gave lout and I sunk to the ground. I tried to get up again, but I couldn’t. Toni looked at her friend, and they exchanged worried looks. She and Toni both helped me up and into a chair. I grimaced and groaned. Toni said I just needed to rest, and she yelled to Jamil, “Jamil! Where is that aspirin?”

“My dog,” I pointed up the hill. “She’s still up there. I tied her there.” I tried to get up again, tried a third time with all my might, but my tarsals and ankles screamed in agony and fire flowed through my whole lower body. Toni put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t get up.What does your dog look like?”

“She’s a white poodle. She’s tied to a sapling near the water fountain.” I tried to get up again and failed again, groaning in pain. Toni had placed her hands on my shoulders to set me back down. Jamil came back with another man, who must have been his father. He was a broad-shouldered, tall man with an intelligent face.

Jamil said, “Hey, we don’t have any aspirin. My grandma said she used the last of the bottle for her back pain.”

Then his father said in a baritone, “my other son is driving to CVS right now to get some Ibuprofen. Hang tight, okay?”

I looked at him and nodded.

He looked at me wryly and said, “how old are you?”

I answered, “thirty-five.”

He looked astonished. He said, “I stopped playing basketball when I was thirty-five. You’ve got some guts, man.”

“Yeah, you should see him play, dad, he’s raw,” Jamil said.

I laughed, and looked back up the hill. It felt like my feet were being sliced off by an onion slicer. I really hoped that Sally hadn’t got loose and lost, or worse, stolen. I couldn’t bear that. You know, if I left her to die a slow painful death, or abandoned her on accident, I wouldn’t be able to handle that. I would keep a straight face in public, but the moment I would get home, I would eat a bunch of ice cream and put on some Marvin Gaye ballads. I couldn’t bear leaving her like you left me. I couldn’t lose another loved one like that, if that ever somehow happened.

(To be Continued…)

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