Friday, December 7, 2012
The dead are everywhere. I pull over to inspect a Magpie that must have lost a game of chicken. On its back with one wing outstretched, the bird reminds me of a flying toy my older brother and I used to play with years ago. A plastic crank on the tail wound an elastic that would flap the wings when the toy bird was thrown gently into the air. It never flew very well, but we tried. I can't see any blood on the Magpie; it must have been clipped by a fender in mid-flight-hop. I snap a few photos of the poor dead creature, wondering what the broken body would feel like in my hands.
Back on the road, I drive past a white cross painted on red rock. There is an indecipherable date scrawled below it. Someone must have died here. I slow the car, wondering as I do if my attempt at reverence will make a difference. It won't, so I snap a photo to remember the spot and the moment.
A mile or so of road, and I turn off into the state park without thinking why. The gate is open but the ranger station empty. As I drive past it I look through the glass sliding door and notice a comfortable office chair inside. I wonder what my life would be like had I followed through on one of my many plans and gone to Colorado to become a park ranger. My teenage boycott of Exxon had been as close as I ever came to making an environmental difference. The memory of jumping from the moving van driven by my girlfriend's father into an Exxon station is a funny one now. I stood defiant at the edge of the gas station parking lot, gathering strength from my "Save the Wolf" tee shirt as her dad pumped his tank full of shoreline-killing fuel.
The state park winds alongside what should be a lake. No lake today, and not for some time by the looks of it. Grass grows tall where water should ripple. I park the car near a cluster of lonely picnic tables. Grabbing the camera and winding my scarf around my neck, I step out onto what serves as beachfront after a good season of snowfall. A few steps forward and I am standing at the edge of an old Western. Any moment now, a pair of men on horseback will ride into view. They will cross the southern end of the empty lake at a full gallop, slowing only when they come to the mud bordering the shallow river that splits the landscape. Allowing their horses a quick drink, the cowboys will take advantage of the moment to turn and look behind them. There will be no cloud of dust, no thundering of hooves. They have outrun their past.
I stumble down the rocky slope to the tiles of earth below. Stepping out onto the bed, the smell of low tides in New Hampshire rush up my nose. I breathe the triggered memories away and walk closer to the river. My shoes grow heavier with each step as the tiles of earth near the river give way to tiles of mud. I stop rather than lose a shoe, or slip and slide into the icy mountain water. Twenty years ago I would have rushed to the river's edge, the invincibility of youth blinding me to the dangers of running alone across cold winter mud towards a cold winter river.
A few photos and many thoughts before I stumble back up the rocky slope towards the car. A scattering of bones, a single shotgun shell, and the mouthpiece from a snorkel catch my attention and give rise to a number of possibilities. I choose treasure divers overcome by greed and let my imagination run.
Northbound again. Rounding a bend I notice a trail of wet ending in a tiny pool of red. A deer has just been struck, I can see it lying dead in the mud at the side of the road. I pull over on a straightaway and walk back to the scene. There is a deep tire track in the mud beneath the deer. At first look it appears that the driver swerved off the road to avoid hitting the animal, while the deer leapt off the road to avoid being struck by the driver. Destined to collide, the deer lies where it was struck, and the driver kept going. But the wet read trail in the road tells a different story; the deer was struck in the road and landed in the mud. Other than a bit of blood, the deer looks much like the Magpie. I don't wonder how the deer's lifeless body would feel in my hands.
Back onto the state road heading north. I park at the northern end of the lake and walk out onto the man-made slope of earth and rocks that drowned a town and created the reservoir. There are a few determined fishermen sitting in camp chairs at the base of the dam. Their rods rest still in their mittened hands, bait and lures unnoticed by their prey.
It is cold, and but for the occasional passing car, quiet on top of the dam. I make a note to return on a sunny day, then head back to the car. I head out onto 80 heading east. Coalville is just a few minutes away. I exit the highway and drive onto Main Street, USA, 1965. It seems that downtown Coalville hasn't changed much over the years. The street is wide enough to turn a horse and buggy in a complete circle. I like it. I park in front of an old storefront and step inside, hoping to buy something worthy of a toast. The doorframe acts like a time machine, and I am surrounded by Spanish language adverts and labels. I walk through the market, marveling that everything is as it should be; the placement of the wooden shelves, the soda coolers, the rows of bottles and boxes, even the Latino shopkeeper and his son. Am I back in Paraguay?
I make for the soda coolers. Scanning the rows of soda, my eyes fill with tears at the sight of Fanta Orange. The bottle looks just like it did in 1990. I reach out and take one in my hand; it feels just like it did in 1990. Shifting the bottle between my hands, I smile at the familiar feeling and sound of the cold glass slapping against my palms. I close the cooler, look up at the ceiling as if it were heaven, and laugh.
"Can you tell me how to get to the town cemetery?" I ask the shopkeeper's son as he rings up my total.
"Sure, just keep going up Main until you see the sign for the library. You know, a person reading a book," He mimes an open book in his hands, lowers his head and reads an invisible page.
"Okay," I smile.
"Take a right at the library sign and follow that road to the cemetery."
"Thanks," I reply, for some reason wishing that I were buying more than just a soda.
I step out onto the sidewalk and wonder about the bottle-cap. Will I need a bottle opener, or is it a twist-off? A quick grab at the cap hurts my hand. I walk back inside the shop.
"You need a bottle opener?" The shopkeeper is waiting for me, an opener in his hand.
"Thanks," I say again a moment later, leaving with my open bottle of Fanta Orange. Back in the car, I set the soda into the cup holder without taking a sip.
I chuckle as I pass the library sign, the shopkeeper's son and his miming fresh in my mind. A short drive and I see the cemetery up ahead, set on a slight hill at a curve in the road. I pull in and stop at the directory. The plastic pages are cold and wet from last night's rain. I flip to the back half of the book, and after a few turned pages find what I am looking for. A quick look at the map and I know where to go.
I park beside section C, pull out my headphones and stick them into my ears. After dialing up "The Man From Snowy River" soundtrack on my Ipod, I grab the Fanta Orange, take a deep breath, and step out among the dead. A few strides north and the grave I am looking for comes into view. The familiar music swells in my ears, and tears well up in my eyes. The bottle is now cold in my hand, the pain of it climbing up into my wrist and forearm. I think back to how good a cold bottle of soda felt on hot humid days in Paraguay.
Much like the man buried beneath it, the rock that marks Kent Saxtons' grave is rough-edged, unpolished, solid, and beautiful.
"Well, this is nice," I offer, taking in the view of mountains as I kneel in the grass beside my friend.
"I brought a bottle of Fanta Orange. The bottle looks just like the ones we used to drink in Hernandarias." I hold the liquid memory up in toast before taking a long pull. The cold orange fizz scratches at the back of my throat as it goes down.
"Just wanted to tell you that I have never met anyone quite like you, and I don't believe that I ever will." I smile, thinking back to the first time I met Saxton.
I was a brand new Mormon missionary. It was my first day in Paraguay. Saxton had been assigned to give my trainer and I an instructive tour of our service area, the Asuncion suburb known as Fernando de la Mora. Saxton's behavior during that tour was at best unbecoming a Mormon missionary. The short sleeves of his white shirt were folded like the sleeves of a biker's tee shirt, he swore like a sailor's whore, and spent most of the tour pointing out (and flirting with) every good-looking chica that passed on the street. Wet behind the ears as I was, his comportment shocked me to the point of tears. An hour into my two years as a missionary, and I was doubting the decision to serve. That night I promised myself that I would never accept an assignment to work as Saxton's companion, no matter how insistent the Mission President might be.
Four months of my mission passed in Fernando de la Mora. Saxton became a bad memory, and someone to avoid at mission conferences. My next assignment was to serve in a remote village known as Hernandarias. Known for the dark red color of the earth (and the subsequent reddening of a missionary's white shirts), the town sat near the border of Brazil. After a week in Hernandarias, an unforeseen emergency brought about the transfer of my new missionary companion to another area. President Russell, a reluctance in his voice and tears in his eyes, told me that I would remain in Hernandarias, and that my new companion would be Saxton.
Betrayed, dejected, and abandoned, I returned to the tiny apartment in Hernandarias and awaited my fate. It was the end of my mission as I had known it.
Saxton arrived by bus late that night. He carried a skateboard along with his luggage. I cried myself to sleep while he unpacked his Benneton cardigans and khaki pants to the thrashing sounds of Def Leopard's "Hysteria" album. I had never felt so alone, so demoralized. I was a teenager, trying to speak a foreign language to foreign people in a third world country. The food was strange, the people dirty and ignorant, and the living conditions well below my standards. The work was difficult, the responsibility great, and the fear of failure constant. Serving an honorable mission was hard enough without the distraction and moral vacuum that Saxton was sure to present.
That first week was for me emotional, mental, and spiritual torture. Jealousy and confusion wracked my mission-rules-abiding soul as I watched Saxton befriend an entire community with ease. Women swooned in his presence, men embraced him like they would an old school chum, and children trailed behind him as if candy rained from his pockets. He was easy going, a master conversationalist, and forever smiling. I hated him, but not because he was everything that I wasn't. No, I hated him because without wanting to, without meaning to, and without difficulty, I adored him.
His love for the people was unmistakeable, his sympathy for their trials sincere, his desire to help and uplift them manifest in his actions. Rough around the edges and non-conforming as he was, there was no doubting Saxton's motives; he served the people of Paraguay out of love.
"You need to stop swearing," I said one morning as we fastened cardboard mud flaps to the rear tires of our bikes. Mine read "Ride To Live, Live To Ride."
"I know," Saxton replied, regret and embarrassment in his tone.
"How about we make a deal; I'll help you to stop swearing if you teach me to love these people the way you do." I jumped on my bike and rode off down the street, worried that he would laugh at my suggestion.
"Hey," Saxton pedaled hard to catch up. "I want you to punch me in the arm every time I swear."
"What? Really?" My bike coasted to a wobbly crawl.
"Shit yeah, it's the only way I'll stop swearing," Saxton replied.
I reached out and punched him as hard as I could. The effort nearly tipped me off my bike and into the red dirt road. Saxton laughed, rubbed his arm, and kept pedaling.
"Hysteria" was soon replaced by "The Man From Snowy River" soundtrack, and after a week of sore arms, swears were replaced with Spanish/English hybrid substitutes. In time I gave away all of my silk ties and even my suits, replacing them with two simple ties, a pair of cardigan sweaters, and khaki pants. I found that I no longer avoided snot-nosed babies, playing street games with muddy kids, or carrying wood for a family's fire pit. I could dig a well, mend a fence, or wash an old woman's dishes without fear of damaging my expensive clothes.
Saxton taught me to listen, to be patient, and to love. I no longer looked upon the people of Paraguay as filthy heathens in need of what I had to offer them, but as beautiful people that had much to offer me. I began to enjoy my time in Paraguay, rather than counting down the days I had left there.
Two decades later, far from the red mud of Hernandarias, the wind is chilly, and I am full of cold Fanta Orange. I kneel beside his grave and wonder at the impact Saxton made on my life. Why do I miss so terribly a man that I only knew for a short while, so long ago?
A thought springs to mind, pushing a smile through my tears.
Suits come and go, but cardigans never die!