There are only two real choices in life: cotton tails or peach pits. Living with the heart door flung open or living it with it shut. It is a mistake to think it can be softness for one and not for the other, or even softness for the two-leggeds and not for the winged ones or fur balls or sequins.
It is a mistake. But many make it.
When he was a little boy in a potato field, the man in the green truck dreamed his life like all boys do. The last of nine, he scraped together a box of used and rusting tools, pried off the backs of things and inspected their guts.
His was the inscrutable language of carburetors and transformers, little jots of glass blown over floating silver, white and black wires connecting one mystery to another. He made radios speak and blenders whirl. He rescued vacuums from the rubbish bins; lawnmowers,too. The man in the green truck was like the elf who makes the toys speak at night—he made his motors rev and purr.
The little girl in the red shorts and soft red shoes never heard him speak the word “love.” But she noticed something change whenever he went back to the place where he sweated and ran and plucked feathers from chickens and shouted over the rumble and squeal of rail road cars. There was something full and guttural about the blood world of cabbages crowded with rice and a bit of beef, the sauerkraut his sisters sliced and stirred in the basement and pierogi’s of thick white flour patted between strong polish hands.
Something pulled him into the earth from which he came. Something good.
He was a carpenter, not a builder as his wife and son insisted. A “builder” would have lifted him above the musty smell of the potato field and the single chicken on Sundays shared by a score of hungry mouths. It would have lifted him above his blood. He never wanted this. Never.
But he wasn’t strong enough to say. Absent courage, he perfected the art of resistance.
The only child to go to college, and that on a full scholarship, he said pitnik instead of picnic, Chicago instead of Shicago. He thwacked and hammered “the useless intellectuals” for virtually every problem that ever boiled.
Supper was on the table at 5. Always. He swallowed his food whole. Despite nightly admonishments to eat more slowly, he never did.
A half hour before supper, the green truck rumbled up the hill. When it stopped, a young man in a white t-shirt, dabbled with sawdust and sweat, climbed down and strode straight to the thick cardboard box in the corner of the garage. He clutched a few amber bottles and climbed the stairs. Rheingold was his favorite beer.
The man in the green truck built his house: the trusses and blocks, the long copper pipes and the textured wood shingles, with his own tough hands. His trousers were the color of an evergreen forest; the brown belt that held them peeled around the edges.
He kept everything, saving every board and nail and screw. He was a carpenter who came up in a big family in the thinnest of years. He played the saxophone and clarinet though he did not sound a note on either all the days the little girl knew him. He tucked his harmonica, the kind that has the push button on the side, in the top drawer of his dresser, somewhere beneath the boxers and socks.
There was music in this man at one time. When did it leave him?
Was it when the Fury came?
From the tippity-top of the Red Maple tree, a little girl with red shoes and white rubber tips, pulls the rope over the smooth gray arms of her castle and grabs a lime green pail filled with acorns and a few nails. She pushes the nail into the circle where the acorn snapped from the branch and carves out the meat till it is smooth inside. Spinning the nail, she drills a tiny hole and pushes a stick thru the side. She smokes her pipe just like the man in the green truck after a day of hammering and sawing.
She knows all the sounds by heart: the caw of jays, the chirp of crickets, faucets running, shoes clopping down hallways, tools slamming into the wood bench and the rev and purr of a truck far in the distance.
There it is…
Swinging from branch to branch, she scales down the tree, drops to the grass and tears down the long hill to wait. The truck stops right near the mailboxes: she jumps onto the smooth hills of the running board and grips the way-back for the ride up.
It is the happiest moment of her day, and in time, the happiest moment of an entire childhood.
The Fury claimed the rest.
She squeezes her tiny fingers to hold the lock on the bedroom door straight up and down. But the man in the green truck is on the other side. His hands wield hammers all day long; they sling boards bigger than she is.
She tries to hold on.
She can’t. She is a little girl, with pockets stuffed with sea glass and shells. She’s no match for hands that picked potatoes, joined radio wires, fingered the sweet notes of a saxophone and tamed the wildness of wood and stone.
She drops to the floor, her feet pressed against the door, her back jammed against the bottom of the bed, turning herself into a bony “L” even he cannot break.
The tiny heart beats; it’s louder than his screaming. Like the caw and the footsteps, she knows the sound of the screwdriver in the tiny screw. He removes the entire door knob and lock and peers at her through the hole. She doesn’t hear a word he says. She presses her hands down hard on her knees so they don’t fail. She sits like this for hours, until the Fury dissolves into the amber bottle or until the snoring starts.
For the little girl with red shoes and white tips, family has been hard to come by in this life.
Still there are things she knows and feels that few two-leggeds do. The angels took her in. Owls live with her; doves too. “Yes. yes” they say to each other ‘She doesn’t have wings but she wants them. It’s enough.”
They know she stroked a hummingbird sister back to life and a woodpecker boy, too, that she sang Christmas songs to her goat as he lay dying, that a hook flew into her cheek moments after she asked out loud if the sequins, that is to say, the fish, feel pain.
The little girl lives a magical life, though her bowls of sadness keep filling and filling. One day they will be drained and dipped in sunshine. She escaped The Fury and saved her heart.
She can save it, again…
I am a cottontail, dad. It’s why I left the field of your life.
May your new land be soft. May your green truck roar again in a sweeter time.