Monday, April 7, 2014

On a Close Call

The wind was fierce and came from where blizzards originated, but it was warm and exhaled Spring and scoured away the snow. In the bare trees, the nests of squirrels were caught like cockleburs. The gutters pulsed with water. At night, returning from the book club, I passed the river swollen with melt-water. The flood crouched in the trees and the black waters caught a speck of moonlight and glinted dully like the eye of a great beast brooding in ambush and half-concealed in the woods.

After the wind and the rain, the lawns were mostly free of snow. At the edges of parking lots, snow had been plowed into towering mounds. In those places, winter lingered and the warm wind and drizzle softened the contours of the snowfields and rounded their peaks and edges. The remaining snow assumed the aspect of mountain ranges. If you imagined yourself as an ant, great sierras of snow rose from the edges of the concrete and asphalt. At the base of the snow-ranges, there were skirts of fan-shaped alluvial ice where melt-water seeping from the pile froze at night and remained solid for half the day before leaking away in the afternoon. Some of the snow-mountains resembled lone volcanoes, Mount Fujiyama or Popocapetl, isolated cones of snow standing in the shade of the naked trees. In other places, the mountains formed long parallel ridges. In one place, I saw snow-massif that looked exactly like Sheep Mountain in Wyoming, an example of an anticline featured in gloomy aerial photographs in all old geology textbooks. At the intersections, where snow from two streets had been piled and, then, trenched to afford access to sidewalks, the remaining cliffs of the stuff looked like decaying icebergs. Next to my office, piled in a blind alley, there was a formation of chest-high snowmountds that exactly simulated the central portion of the Big Horns between Buffalo and Sheridan, Wyoming. Standing on the steps leading into my office, I could survey the entire mountain range: its eastern flanks were steep and riven in places by canyons and, then, there was a central plateau, between towering summits: Cloud Peak and the Powder River Pass and, beyond, Bald Mountain and the great, bare flank of the ridge on which ancient Indians had made the Medicine Wheel atop the windswept and sheer western escarpment.

Small claws scratched at bark behind me. A squirrel had become detached from its tree and seemed to be dazed, perhaps, half-mad with hunger. The little animal’s flanks trembled and, as I approached, it didn’t dash away, but, rather, stumbled around the tree, scrambling to keep the trunk between us. Most squirrels are swift and decisive in their motions, but this animal was uncertain. As I circled the tree, the squirrel staggered across the concrete steps and, then, tentatively climbed the eastern slope of the Big Horns. I took a step in the squirrel’s direction and it skittered across the plateau, ascending up Medicine Mountain and, then, vanishing down one of the gorges on the range’s western escarpment.

When the sun is shining and gutters singing and the snow reduced to eroded artifacts, perils seem far away. Small children are playing untended in front yards and bicycles zoom by and older kids with saggy trousers are marching along the sidewalks holding their skateboards like shields against hip and breast. Girls are going door-to-door selling coupon books for a school fundraiser. Ladders stand against walls and people take all kinds of risks. When I sit down in my car, I can’t bring myself to clasp the seatbelt across my lap. I’m only going home, three and a half blocks. What hazard could lurk in that tiny commute?

Near the corner, there is a big puddle spreading from where a storm sewer grate is dammed by twigs and branches that Winter stripped from the trees. Passing cars exuberantly crash through the puddle and the water jumps under the wheels and frisks along the curb. It is “Just - spring”, to recall a poem by e.e. cummings, and the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”. Perhaps, I was six or seven when my father read that poem to me and displayed the words in their strange array on the white page of the book and asked me what I thought that it meant. I didn’t know. My father asked me to tell him the name of the poem’s “little lame balloonman” who is “queer and old”. Of course, I didn’t know that either. The balloonman whistles three times in the poem, each piping said to be “far and wee” and near the end of the verse, the balloonman’s hobbled walk is imitated by words splayed and staggering down the page and the reader is told that he is “goat-footed.” Of course, the balloonman with his pipe and goat-feet is Pan, or, perhaps, merely a garden-variety satyr, but, in any event, an embodiment of the pagan energies of nature. My father explained this to me and, even now, across the span of more than fifty years, I still feel the weird shiver of excitement thrilling me when I understood this allusion. Words could mean something mundane and quotidian and, yet, lurking behind the simple diction were intimations of another broader world, territories luminous with mythological beings. The puddles and the mud assumed aspects of the eternal. “Just” spring meant both a season through which one lives day by day among banal incidents of ordinary life, children playing games like hop-scotch and jump-rope and cripples stationed in parks selling balloons, but also the eternal justice of the gods, the Spring’s recompense to mankind after the assault and battery of Winter, Persephone released from Hades for a few months to enjoy the light of heaven. When you are a child and susceptible to this sort of thought, a little poem like cummings’ verse about the mud and the puddles and the little lame balloonman might make you want to be a writer.

And, so, remembering these things, I sat down in my car and reached for my seat belt as is my custom, but, then, I thought: it’s [Just - Spring] and world is puddle-wonderful and I am driving only three-and-a-half blocks through sunlight and along quiet residential streets and so I don’t need to wear my lap-belt. After all, what could happen between the squirrel traversing the Big Horn range in the alleyway beside my law office and my driveway and garage? I put the car in gear and drove without wearing my seatbelt.

Two blocks from my office, I rounded a corner and, because I was hyper-vigilant, noticed a pattern in the landscape rotating in front of me as my car turned that was disturbing. A row of battered-looking pick-up trucks and old cars were parked along the curb on the left-side of the road. The vehicles were spaced with a yard or so between them and lined-up in a way so as to obstruct my vision of the sidewalk. To my right, a small Hispanic boy had come from the sidewalk onto the apron of a driveway and was standing at the edge of the street. The little boy wore round, sturdy glasses and he was beckoning to someone across the road from him. When I looked in the direction that he was gesturing, to my left again, beyond the vehicles parked along the curb, I saw several women, each of them cupping a cell-phone to the side of their heads and a gaggle of small children, little boys and girls grubbing in the mud. The women didn’t seem to notice the boy across the street from them, signaling. I glimpsed something moving toward the street on the left and slowed my car until it was almost stopped and the bare trees shuddered in the wind and cast spidery shadows onto the road surface and the puddles stretched along the gutter on the right, interrupted here and there with charred-looking slabs of broken and melting ice, glittered in the sunlight. It was fortunate that I had braked because a small girl, perhaps, three years old, wearing a tiny hooded sweatshirt and red tennis shoes, darted between the parked cars on my left and, suddenly, emerged under my front fender. One of the women screamed. The little boy across the street, who had signaled for the girl to cross and join him, looked up at the metal bulk of my car and the round lenses of his eyeglasses caught the light and shot it against my windshield.

A woman ran out between the parked cars and yanked the little girl back into the mucky front-yard. It occurred to me that, perhaps, the child had been spared injury or worse because of two young squirrels. One block before, a miniature squirrel red as a fox skittered down a tree and ran straight out onto the road directly in front of me, another larger squirrel dashing behind it, both rodents very close to the ground and the dead, grey grass and the knuckles of fallen acorns and the tree limbs knocked down from above and littering the boulevard. The first squirrel sensed my car, about ten or fifteen feet away, and bearing down on it, and, suddenly, with the sort of nervous precision that characterize these animals, executed an instantaneous about-face. From scampering toward death under my wheels, the little red squirrel spun and darted right back into the face of its pursuer, and the second squirrel no doubt sensing peril, also turned so quickly that I couldn’t see how that animal reversed direction, just that it did, so that the pursuer was now, suddenly, the pursued and both darted back to a big column of tree trunk and hustled up the bark into the barren and leafless branches above.

It was these squirrels that had drawn my attention to the road ahead of me in a very intense and singular way about a block before I encountered the children. At that time, the landscape seemed so alive and vibrant with sudden, unexpected motion that it was not merely that I was looking very intensely across the lawns and the gutters and the trees and cars parked along the side of the street, but also that these things seemed energized and were somehow looking back at me, gazing at me with the same fixed and exact attention with which I was watching them. It was as if I were reading a street and a lawn and construing patterns of motion as if these things were a poem. If the squirrels hadn’t alerted me to watch the world with a particular intensity and concern, I doubt that I would have seen the little girl suddenly dart between the cars on my left to run directly into the path of my oncoming vehicle.

Later, that evening, I passed the lake on the edge of town. The lake’s glacial reptilian eye seemed only half open, a nictitating membrane of pale blue ice covering half of the water’s surface. In places, the ice seemed still stiff enough to support a man’s, or, at least, a child’s weight. Some kids were standing on the edge of the lake, prodding the ice with branches fallen from the trees. The ice was seductive and made a path across the lake and I could imagine venturing out onto the water to walk between the two shores. In the breeze, I thought I heard a piping sound faint and wee.