Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Driving through town on a Tuesday afternoon I pass the swimming pool.

A child with slick combed-back wet dark hair is padding barefoot across a parking lot draped in some brightly colored fabric: from a distance, it looks like a cape, or a Mexican poncho. Of course, it's a beach towel, but I want to go on believing it's a poncho, appropriately festive and joyous.

A stooped-over man with gray work clothes and long gray hair pulled sloppily back into one plait snaking down the back of his neck walks alongside the road with a gnarled wooden stick for a cane. He stops to bark at a small cat scampering around his feet and twining between his legs plaintively: "Behave! Behave!" The cat yowls, piteous, and he scoops it up into his arms as though it is a great weight, though the animal is obviously lighter and more pliant than a child's feather pillow. The cat is gray, his clothes are gray, his hair is gray. Some people have actual clouds trailing about them. This is just such a person. Was he ever young and light of foot, with closely shorn hair and a mischievous laugh? No, never. This is a man who looks as if he has been aged by bitterness -- and a lost moment.

A family is holding a garage sale; they announce it with fluorescent hot pink signs hastily tacked or fastened to telephone poles and guard rails by the highway. Inside the garage a small boy pedals furiously on a three-wheeler in circles around his young, impossibly thin mother as she wails at him to stop, her voice shrill with frustration.

The young woman's hips are as narrow as an adolescent's; it seems improbable her pelvic bones could have ever borne such a weight as this child. Her eyes are lidded with a thick, glittering blue, the kind only seen on Barbie dolls and Vegas performers. Her unswerving focus on the boy's behavior is disconcerting, putting me in mind of an inexperienced night driver; so unable to look away from the side of the road searching for the white line, that going forward without swerving out of the lane is an improbability.

Did we have yard sales, growing up? I can't remember. There is so much affluence at every level of living: so much to continually shed and discard and throw away for something new. We have satellite dishes, bottled water, cell phones, battery-operated cars for children, air-conditioning, hormone-fed chicken and beef for faster slaughter and distribution, IPods and ringtones.

My children think I'm joking when I tell them I used to ride my bike in the summers (a bike I got used, and rebuilt and refinished with sandpaper and spray paint), ride for miles to the country grocery store or the lake or just into the woods. Going to the swimming pool was a luxury that happened maybe once a summer; mostly we just begged to be sprayed with the garden hose, at least long enough to run up the water bill or make the grass slippery enough to slide in barefoot, whichever came first.

What did you get at the country store, Mom?

I bought a bag of chips and a soda, or a candy bar; and I ate it sitting on a footbridge, swinging my legs over the side and looking down into the water for crawdads to torment.

No video games? No DVD's? No Dance, Dance, Revolution? No X Box? How did you stand it? What did you have when you were a kid?

Zotz candy. That was the best. Fizzy stuff on the inside, hiding inside a hard sweet candy shell, and there was an art to biting it open (ever so gently!) and then coaxing the fizz out with the tip of your tongue until all the bubbling white foam leaked out, filling your mouth with that suprising indescribable sensation. I could have eaten Zotz candy until my teeth fell out.

We ate Mallo Cups, too, and saved the paper coins inside for treats we hardly ever sent away for; we just liked the idea of accumlating theoretical money, my sister and I. Better than Monopoly.

It's amazing I didn't die of malnutrition.

Of all the things I saw today, the image I like the best is that little girl leaving the pool wrapped in a big colorful towel, barefoot. I liked the idea of it -- the simplicity of it. The image of a child so gaily decorated I could easily imagine she was wearing a costume; as if celebrating some private holiday, as carefree and as easily pleased as I might have been once, back in the days before DISH Network, and MTV and the worldwide web.