He is standing at the end of the dock with a cigarette hanging from his dry lips. When the sun rises soon, it will warm his bare feet on the planks of warped wood–just inches above the soft water. His spirit belongs to older generations–an ancient part about him that sent him away from cities and busy people, never trying to chase or capture time. Maybe it was because of the rheumatoid arthritis; he had it since he was seven and now, almost thirty, he’s found where he belongs–taking each day slow and steeped in chamomile, never knowing or planning for the next flare up.
He tinkers with cameras and foods and clay until they make sense in his hands, creating masterpieces in the long afternoons of tea and painkillers. On summer nights he sat outside his house, smoking in the dark, capturing fireflies with shutter modes, trying at it every time he noticed the camera buried somewhere on the counter.
He embodies that Beat-look–aged blue jeans worn thin at the knees and seat, torn and meticulously patched, fitted and worn white t-shirts, shaggy hair. He doesn’t give a damn about troubles or answers; he likes to watch the way things move and take their time. I once sat for two hours watching him creep up on a skunk to catch a shot. I got lost around him, the way he stole time with a naturally sedated articulation and spread it out like night, talking about politics or to whatever was turning in his hands at the moment. Taking a drag, taking a sip, and sauntering back and forth with the pace of an old man on Sundays. I loved him. I envied him without jealousy. I loved how he drew me into that world of his–like we were kids again behind that old red fence full of knots and spy holes, waiting for Spaghettio’s and blowing up frogs.
Mike has already had his hips replaced. It comes and goes; it worsened when he reached his twenties. His bouts in his youth were shorter and he remained somehow elastic and tireless. I couldn’t keep up with him. Now they stretch and tear, and he gets so tired. When he cried to me I knew there was something so deep in him that I could never understand—all the way to his bones.
I listened to him over the phone and watched him when we were together—amazed at how this wild boy had been defied by his own body. He was beautiful. Sometimes it got so bad he’d be in the hospital, worn away to his skeleton, his eyes protruding out of his hollow face. He was embarrassed when I saw him. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed, or turn doorknobs and steering wheels. But some days he could fish with me until the sky turned navy blue, and teach me again how to clean fish. His streaks of health, we learned, were becoming more and more sparse, but when he rounded back out into a healthy body, he picked up where he left off—as best as he could.
When his wrists are swollen, he fills space with dreams. He wants a sailboat, and he’s taking me away, out in the ocean. He tells me this as he sculpts his clay and I play at my old charcoals. Sonny Boy Williams, Ali Farka, and Billie Holiday take turns breezing out my kitchen windows and down my stairs. I make him tea and tell him about the cherry blossom trees in Japan. He talks about oceans and masts and ropes while creating a sculpture with his very own, private signature—a kind of howling like a metaphor in the sinews of his figures.
“Amos (that’s my nickname), we’re gonna do it some day. Man, just picture it—out on that water, the clearest, blue-green water. Just watching the sea and breathing in that air. And we’ll do just this, like we always have.”
I think he started sculpting for two reasons: he was left immobile and looking for things to help the time pass (he has also become a chef, he tailors his own clothes, plants gardens), but I think he also came to a hard conclusion about his situation—optimism is bullshit, you have to take what you get and appreciate it. He wracks himself blind with depression when his body gets so weak and he is so ready to take on the world. He can’t work; he’s on disability. He lost Lindsey, the girl he wanted to marry. The American Arthritis Foundation did a full spread on him and his sculpting in their magazine. He wonders if he needs surgery on his wrists and knees.
With Mike, every moment felt limitless. I remember the time we raced to my house in a storm. He had about a block on me. I ran as fast as my short legs would let me, splashing through growing puddles in my PF Fliers. The seat of my cut-offs was slimy in mud—we’d gone hurdling down the muddy slopes of Suicide Hill and splashed into Bay City Crick. It was a jungle down there. The spray-painted remainders of ancient sewage canals were broken bridges that loomed over the stream and burry themselves into the wall of the ravine. I imagined hieroglyphics and secret codes whispering to us. When we crossed them, every step could have been a booby-trap, so we silently made our way, testing each other for nerve. Then it started to pour. Rain showered down through the canopy of leaves and thunder cracked.
“Yes!” we screamed, and made our way up the muddy path. I kept slipping and sliding, grabbing for vines and thorny branches to pull myself up. Mike was just ahead of me. When I busted out of the scratching brambles and woods, Mike had spiked it down the street, racing me to my house.
The rain stung my skin. My wet ponytail slapped me in the face—side to side—as I pounded the sidewalk. The storm put a yellow shadow on everything, making the grass and lilacs blot in electric color. I saw his skinny legs leap up to the front porch, and he waited for me, panting and soaked through his white t-shirt.
“This is friggin’ awesome Amos!” We paced on the porch.
“Should we go back?” My heart was pounding.
The door opened and my older sister, Nikki, appeared through the gray wires of the screen door. “You guys are gonna be in trouble. When dad gets home he’s gonna see you all wet and you’re gonna get it.” She disappeared. Inside I heard Cindi Lauper singing the theme from The Goonies. We went in and lay down on the carpet, reeling with excitement. Thunder echoed down the avenue.
We were eleven when we came to a place where we thought the earth stopped. We dropped the banana seats in the weeds and didn’t say a word. Ahead of the overgrown field that covered old train tracks, the land ended. It dropped somehow. We were sweating. This was what we were looking for. The heat permeated with milkweed and dandelion. Thorns caught on the strings of my cut-offs. I still remember the wild flutter in my chest.
“Amos…holy shit,” his words carried their way to mine and we stood in silence. We didn’t hear the highway muffled by the woods behind us—just the sound of water breaking against something, and the snap of twigs beneath our feet. We started to run at the same time but came to a screeching halt at the end of the world—a concrete slab no wider than a foot and as long as the shore seemed to go; a concrete wall that dropped off and stretched forever in both directions. Clear water slapped and splashed another ledge four feet below.
“Let’s do it, Amos—count of three.” He grabbed my hand and we screamed out the number, jumping in on “THREE!” shoes and all. Over and over we climbed and jumped. We were too thrilled to speak. We looked at each other while we were under water, trying to reach the bottom. Our limbs looked green in the yellow rays of sun that shot through the water. We decided on a name—The Swim Lot—and we pedaled back to tell my sisters.
This last August our families camped together in Delta, Wisconsin. Deep in the forest on an inlet of Spirit Lake, all is black in and outside of my cabin at four in the morning. I woke up and waited for Mike to meet me at the screen door. I heard a whippoorwill. Pine and birch and a smoky oak soaked the atmosphere. It was chilly. I gathered my fishing pole and gear and waited on the porch in the dark. I lit a cigarette that glowed the rails and hanging life jackets in a blinking red. I could smell the pond scum still dripping from the vests. The lake was barely visible, lit by the moon and stars in hazy electricity behind the black pillars of trees. In the distance, I heard his steps crunching on the gravel. I saw a faint red glow bobbing towards me. I smelled kerosene and coffee.
“Holy shit, Ame, you got up.” His grin was a casual half-smirk but his eyes were alive—we hadn’t been able to do something like this together in a long time.
“Coffee.” His gear and thermos clanked together and he picked up some of the bait.
“Where’d you get that?”
He held up an ancient lantern, “Some rummage sale a long time ago. Works awesome.”
He led the way into the darkness. I couldn’t remember the last time I was outside when the only light for miles around was from the stars. We whispered to each other but stay mostly quiet. I take in the smells and sounds and dark shapes and fresh air as much as I take in Mike, limping ahead of me in a red glow. It was like we were eleven again without permission.
The surface of Spirit Lake was covered in thick wisps of steam that lent to it’s name. A fog drifted around the upturned rowboats and shaky dock that had been there since we were kids. The fog pooled and spread and slipped around us. We slinked into the rowboat and the warm water bogged and recoiled against the hollow tin. I watched Mike’s silhouette against the backdrop of scattered diamonds, turning down the lantern, barefoot on the dock. He handed me the coffee and poles and untied us. We dipped in and over the water. The oars screeched and creaked. We went slow, listening to the oars and to the fish that flopped from the surface. I told him I’d row. The night before, at the fire, I saw his wrists and ankles were swollen ends to his skinny limbs.
“Nah, maybe later.” He breathed in deep. A loon landed close to our boat and we watched it. Its call echoed across the black lake. We sat and fished.
“Amos, when I die, I wanna come back to this, right here.”