We look so clean on Google Earth. We have paved paths through the nearly wild woods that the proper associations of this gang-ridden pit of sunshine and disturbed grace put up for the healthy people, the bikers and runners and the lovers and the mothers with their strollers and their husband’s babies. We have a center with live pseudo-jazz and a fountain and security guards with buzzing radios and beer bellies. We are even, in their photographs, quaint; at the farmer’s market that doesn’t have much to do with farms at all but instead with sipping a small milkshake from the Mexican restaurant in the drugstore/post office while fingering the wares of the multinational women running redundant booths punctuated by the occasional authentic confederate-accent slip of woman selling something odd and useless. They are all salespeople, even the big girl in the wheelchair who it hurts somewhere to look at, an achy burn in whatever organ it is that fills the gap between the butterflies in your belly and the knot in your throat. Where guilt lives, almost- the origin of tooth in tire-rubber lip. Shame, maybe, shame for her and shame on you for not even running a paw over the fluffy somethings (they look like badly knitted potholders, but they might be hats) in her plastic bucket. Then you sip your milkshake and swallow it away, and she doesn’t matter anymore.
At some point before I can remember the town started incorporating a series of abstract, student-produced art into its landscaping projects. One of the more minimalist wooden constructions I’ve been climbing since I was ruler-height. There are holes in the slats, purposeful, quarter-sized holes that you can blow your cigarette smoke through. For the longest time I thought if I just blew hard enough I could make it all come out in one thick cylinder, like Play-doh, but the breeze around here is just strong enough so nothing like that lasts for long.
There are broken bottles everywhere, smashed in with the mossy sunshine like bits of the city have fallen into the woods. A little backwards. Polluting.
“It’s pretty out here.”
“Kind of cold.”
“Want a cigarette?”
“Nah, those things will kill you.”
“Seriously, do you know how much tar and shit there is in those things? It’s like you’re smoking the street.” He has one of those laughs that make it seem like his jaw is wired shut.
“I took health class, thanks. It just made me crave nicotine.”
I think he’s talking- his lips are moving in the way of somebody talking about the stuff of revelations- but either he is not making any noise or this town has sucked the eardrums out of me. Either one makes sense, really. The sun spits out new beads of sweaty bracelet to adorn us, seeping into our pickled skin.
“Hey, look. See the turtle?” I do not see the turtle. I see a log and water and a very hairy almost man.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“No, on the log- look, it’s like a turtle family.” Now, I see the turtle, but I’m missing the babies.
“My neighbor used to catch turtles and paint numbers on their shells so he didn’t catch the same ones twice.” That was definitely a rock.
“My brother used to do that.”
“I never knew you had a brother.”
“Two. And a sister.”
“You know that old bridge?” I do. I hang my feet over it once in awhile and count the things that are wrong with the water. I take pebbles and beer caps and drop them in, one by one like badly set dominoes.
“The one coming up to the 7-11?”
“Did you know a guy hanged himself there?” Hung. He hung himself.
“No- that’s awful.”
“Yeah. I found him, in the morning, on my way to work.”
“I knew him, too. He used to fix cars out in the lot in front of the Hut. Mostly for free because he was friends with everybody but it made him a living. Was pretty good at it but I guess it was illegal or something because he had to stop and then I guess a lot of things went south.”
“I’m sorry.” This is a pathetic response.
“He went by Jorge or something like that. One of those common names. I used to give him free pizza.” I have found the turtles. They are sunning themselves on the log.“I guess free pizza just isn’t enough sometimes.”
It’s not until later, not until we’ve walked back to the Hut and I have freeloaded some pizza myself that I am struck with the urge to ask what his favorite topping was. I don’t, though- instead in my head the mechanic friend’s feet over the concrete creek twist in the wind, which whiles and whistles through his torn jeans and oily tee to the strained rope, up the rope to its triple-tied knot on the bridge with the path that the healthy people walk on, by the road that the healthy people drive on, in this town built up for healthy people with bobbing ponytails and 6:30 workouts; and I wonder how many of these jogged by and missed his knot.