Archive for April, 2011

Finger Saves

Last year Ernesto attended a wood-working show at the convention center. He came home with about $100 worth of new stuff, including a $13 hand saw that cuts through anything like it was butter (I was told).

I asked him what he liked most at the show. Since he was only able to see Master Carpenter Norm Abrams from a distance he said he most enjoyed the demonstration of a table saw guard that senses when a finger is about to come into contact with the blade. At the first touch of flesh, the saw blade magically drops down so that it can do no harm (beyond breaking the skin, which is pretty much inevitable). The gentleman who was demonstrating this attachment had a bandage on one finger, and Ernesto asked him if he used his own finger in the demonstrations.

“No,” the exhibitor told him, “I use a hot dog.” He then pulled out a fresh hot dog and fired up the saw. The hot dog rode shotgun with the piece of wood until it was right at the saw blade—and then—ta da!—the saw blade dropped down, and the hot dog suffered only a small nick.

Ernesto said the convention center was packed, and he noticed that quite a few of the wood-working enthusiasts were missing finger tips. “Well, then,” I said, “I guess the guy selling that saw guard was doing a lot of business.”

Ernesto shook his head. “No,” he said sadly, “for most it was too late.”

We found a video of the saw guard demonstration online so I could see it myself. The Web site also featured photographs that customers had sent in of their own nicked fingers—fingers that would have been severed if not for the saw guard. The page was called “Finger Saves.”

I told my colleague, Linda, about the demonstration. “You know what they should do?” she said, “They should draw a face on the hot dog, put a little frilly dress and bonnet on it, and then they could pretend that the hot dog was a damsel in distress.”

There is something deeply amusing about the idea of a hot dog wearing a bonnet.

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In the Garden, Part II (Conclusion)

We followed a path that passed a fountain with a figure of a woman rising from the basin.  A brass plate stated that this was Persephone’ s Fountain. 

“Persephone is a favorite of mine,” I said, accidentally revealing something about myself that I had never told another human being. I didn’t want to get into why I liked her, so I added, “I wonder if the fountain is made of pomma-granite.” 

 “Marble,” Jay said.  Maybe he only missed the joke because he hadn’t quite heard what I’d said. Still, it was a slight disappointment, and between the heat and the disappointment it seemed too much to expect me to repeat—much less explain—the joke.  Anyway, he might not have any idea of the connection between Persephone and pomegranates.  Podiatry and mythology probably didn’t intersect much.

The path led us on to the Children’s Garden. I lagged behind and allowed Jay to enter the gate first, which was why I noticed the fairy house. A nearly useless half-hearted breeze lifted a dense tangle of wisteria and ivy just enough to reveal the leg of a bench in a vine-covered space only large enough for one person.  The shade and privacy and closeness looked heavenly, but I dutifully followed Jay in my scarf-flops.

I would have liked the Children’s Garden if I had been in a happier frame of mind. It had a splashing fountain you could walk through, and bright crayon-colored flowers. The centerpiece of the garden was an elaborate display at waist-height with bonsai trees and flowering plants and a little village.  Train tracks ran through the village, so presumably a toy train passed through there.  A grandma, grandpa, small boy, and even smaller Chinese girl in a stroller waited at the exhibit fence to watch the train come around. Jay joined them.

While everyone was occupied staring at the train tracks, I went back to the fairy house under the tangled vines and sat on the little bench. I could hear the train-spotters murmuring at the fence, and once I heard Jay say, “Helen?”  He had not discerned the little bench and the fairy house any more than he had discerned my joke about Persephone.

“There’s the train,” I heard Grandpa say.  From the concerned noises that followed that statement, it seemed that the train had derailed.  I opened a peep-hole in the wisteria and looked out just as Grandpa climbed laboriously over the fence and through a lot of foliage and broke pretty much every rule in the botanical garden guidebook to set the train right so the children would be able to see it go. 

Everyone, including Jay, cheered when the train finally rolled through the village and then continued on into the back part of the miniature garden.  But it didn’t come by a second time. 

“There’s a branch over there stopping it,” Jay said. “I think I can reach it.”  He leaned ‘way over and bent the branch back tenderly, tucking it behind another plant to keep it from crossing the track.  The train rolled again, and this time only Grandma and Grandpa cheered. The kids no longer cared.

 Jay straightened and looked around again, so I quickly dropped the wisteria back.  “Helen?” I heard him say again, tentatively. 

I felt cool, invisible, and sought-after in my fairy house.  But I had to admit I liked the way old Jay had reached out his hand to bend back that branch so the train could go through, and it took a certain amount of gentlemanly artistry to think of devising flip-flop repairs with scarves—and then to spring for a matching pair. I studied the ivy and wisteria.  Perhaps it wasn’t wisteria, after all.  The vines cast a greenish glow on my palm.

I waited one more breath, then reached my hand through the waterfall of vines and waved it slowly.  I wished I could see Dr. Jay’s face at the appearance of a hand through the greenery. Possibly he would have been more attuned if I had stuck a foot out.  Then again, I had no idea if he was even looking in the right direction.  Probably he wasn’t.  Probably he had tired of my preoccupation with the heat and my inattentiveness to the flowers and my general lack of enthusiasm.  Probably he would ditch me, and I would never hear from him again. Or perhaps he had moved on, assuming that I had already left the Children’s Garden to follow the path to the orchid house or—

 A hand clasped mine.


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In the Garden, Part I

A piece of short fiction, in two parts.

I had arranged to meet this podiatrist—he called himself Jay—at the botanical gardens at 11:00 in the morning, which you might think would be a decent time of day to walk around and look at some flowers and get to know someone, but in fact the sun was already beating down on us even as it continued rising. The Ottoman garden, the scented garden, and the Victorian formal garden were in full sun with no shade, and to tell the truth after a few minutes of meaningless chat I forced us to sort of rush past them, hoping to find a place that had some trees or arbors or something.

But the Victorian garden designers had taken up a great deal of space with a shrubbery maze instead of planting some nice cooling trees. Nothing—nothing—could have gotten me inside that boxwood hell, but Jay insisted that we climb the stairs to the top of the observation tower so we could look down at the people trapped inside the maze. He said he thought it would be fun. I should have known it would be this way. I have terrible luck with men.

It was a squatty sort of observation tower, and there weren’t that many stairs, but the idea of getting any closer to the sun had zero appeal. Still, it was already hot and this was turning out to be a complete failure as a first date anyway, so I gave in and climbed.

The top was as dispiriting as I had feared. There was room to hold about six people comfortably, and there were already five people up there, none of whom showed any signs of heading back down. They were mostly yelling directions to family members who couldn’t seem to find their way out of the maze. Maybe the trapped people liked being told which way to turn while they fried in the sun.

“Look at the Ottoman Garden from here,” Jay said, but I had already turned to go down. Halfway to the bottom Jay stepped on the sole of my flip-flop and I nearly took a nose dive. I caught myself in time, but the toe-keeper part of the flip-flop ripped out of the sole. Jay made a big show of trying to repair it, but we could both see that there was absolutely no way.

“Flip-flops are the worst type of footwear,” he told me. His voice was very serious. “They don’t protect the feet at all.” I thought I had done him a favor by wearing flip-flops to our first date. It amounted to full disclosure—see, Dr, Jay? No bunions, no plantar’s warts, no hammer toe or fungus here!

We walked back to the entrance of the gardens, where there was a café and gift shop. I had to squeeze the poorly re-anchored toe-keeper with all my toes to keep the flip-flop on my foot, but mostly I was shuffling until we reached a bench outside the gift shop. Jay bought me a bottle of water. “Wait here,” he said. I rolled the water bottle over my forehead. It was delicious.

Jay returned with a little shopping bag from the gift shop. He’d bought me a scarf with Monet’s water lilies printed on it. “Thanks,” I said. I don’t imagine I sounded grateful. Was I supposed to wear this thing?

“I think we can use it to sort of bind up your shoe,” he explained.

That was interesting, so I stuck the severed toe-keeper into my purse and began to experiment with the scarf and my leftover piece of sole. Jay sat on the bench and watched me as he drank his bottle of water. I ran the scarf beneath the sole a number of different ways, finally settling on a method that resulted in a sort of ballet-slipper wrap around the ankle that ended with a tidy bow at the Achille’s tendon.

I stuck my foot out and observed it. “Nice,” Jay said. “You have lovely feet.” He jumped up and ran off again, and I admired my prettified flip-flop and my lovely feet and drank my water. The bench shook when Jay landed on it again, and he handed me another bag. “So you can make the other one match,” he explained.

We walked back into the blinding sun and took the path that led to the Japanese gardens, which were shady and nice. I particularly liked the little covered meditation hut, which faced a koi pond. My scarf-swathed feet were the ideal accent. But as if we were on a secret timetable, Jay only sat in the shaded hut for 45 seconds before he popped up to hit the garden paths again.

“I could write advertisements for your practice,” I said. “‘Dr. Jay: he’ll keep you on your toes.'”  I was actually a bit annoyed, but I went along. After all, the guy had bought me two overpriced gift store scarves.

Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day:  The conclusion of “In the Garden.”

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Snapshot: Mayport, FL

I used to drive through Mayport, Florida, twice a day to take the St. Johns River ferry to and from work. Mayport is a tiny town with a naval base, a lighthouse, a post office, and two extremely casual seafood restaurants. Taking the ferry lopped about an hour off the round trip and made for a scenic, relaxed commute.

After 9/11 the commute became a little more difficult. All vehicles entering Mayport Naval Base had to be searched, and one of the access gates to the base was on the single-laned road to the ferry. The result was a major back-up on that road every morning. Missing the ferry meant a 30-minute delay until the next one arrived; of course, if you felt anxious you could pull around the line of cars and travel approximately half a mile going the wrong way in the oncoming lane until you were either past the back-up or you met one of the dozen residents from the other side trying to drive out. They didn’t like it one bit, either. Being a feisty breed, they tended to speed up, horn blaring, forcing any law-breaking drivers into the sand on the left shoulder.

Mayport was filled with quirky people of unusual spirit. Post-9/11, one local innkeeper changed his motel sign to announce:  “America will prevail. Jacuzzi suites.”

But perhaps the best example of the Mayport temperament can be found in a documentary by Steve Earnhart called Mule Skinner Blues. I saw it years ago at the Pablo 9 in Jacksonville Beach with my friend, Susan. The film featured Beanie Andrew, an alcoholic and former shrimper who lived in the Buccaneer Trailer Park. Beanie was a man with a unique and specific dream: He yearned to star in a horror movie as a gorilla that rises up out of the mud. Earnhart had met Beanie while shooting a music video in Florida and liked his style, so he returned to Mayport, handed Beanie a video camera, and set him loose.  

I was astonished by the number of serendipitous occurrences that contributed to the realization of Beanie Andrew’s dream. First, of course, he met Earnhart and was given the means to make his own 15-minute movie. Second, he had a large number of under-employed trailer-park friends (mostly struggling musicians) who were willing to dangle from cranes and wallow in mud and junkyards. Finally, one of Beanie’s neighbors, Annabel, had graduated from the NC School of the Arts with a degree in Costume Design. So of course when she reached into the cloud of bright silks and gauzy tulle that filled one end of her trailer, Annabel plucked out… a gorilla costume.

(Annabel was quite an interesting minor character. She had no intention of living in the Buccaneer forever, so she kept her dead pit bull in a small freezer that sat outside behind the trailer. She wanted to bury the dog on her own property some day when she had a permanent home. In the course of the film, Annabel opens the freezer and displays the dead pit bull, leaning to one side with his tongue protruding. At that point Susan leaned over and whispered, “Maybe you should take the long way to work from now on.”)

As I recall it, Beanie appears in a sort of dream-sequence at the end of the movie in which he dances with a gorilla while a disco ball rotates overhead. Then he says something like, “You can make your dreams happen—you can get down in the mud and come up out of it, a gorilla.”

Indeed you can.

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