A First Taste Of Metal

It took her nearly 95 years to hear it.  When she finally did, you could see the look in her eyes as she sat in the car, staring hypnotically at nothing in particular as her vision seemed to fall just short of the dashboard.

I had come to train Rouye Rush on a Saturday morning at The Wellington—her senior apartment complex that had a small, but adequate fitness center.  As I pulled into the main parking lot, I saw Rouye standing under a tall shade tree.  I had been listening to music in the car when the thought occurred to share a couple of songs with her.

I rolled down my window and pointed to the passenger’s seat.  “Why don’t you get out of the heat and have a seat.  I want you to hear something.”

For six years I’ve been training Rouye, who’s hardly your typical almost-centenarian.   There is a durableness about her physiology.  Though her skin is thinning, it is the musculature beneath that refuses to weaken.  A year ago she was sidelined from working out due to an outbreak of the shingles virus, leaving her legs aching and itching for weeks on end.  But when she did return to the gym, it was as if she had never skipped a beat. Pushing 130 pounds on the leg press wasn’t much of a challenge.  Perhaps the secret lies within her motivation.  Ask her to throw a 20-pound medicine ball five times against a wall, and she’ll give you ten.  Ask her to dribble a basketball in a figure eight pattern around her legs and, for the first time in nine decades, she’ll get it right by the third try without any sign of hesitation.  While she knows her limits, and easily recognizes when something is beyond her abilities, Rouye has an open mind that welcomes trying something new. Even if it’s, well…a bit shocking.

Enter: Heavy metal music.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat next to me, I turned to her and said, “Rouye, before we hit the weights, I want to play some music for you.”

“Okay,” she said, “Let’s hear it.”

I had my iPod hooked up to my car’s auxiliary outlet.

“How many songs do you have on that thing?” she asked.

“Over two-thousand.”

“Good lord,” she said shaking her head. “When does anyone find the time to listen to two-thousand songs?”

“I know it’s a lot,” I said chuckling at her surprise. “But I love my music.”

“Well, that’s pretty obvious.  Okay, so what do you want me to listen to?”

“Metal. Heavy metal.”

“Metal? Of course it’s heavy.”

“Metal, Rouye, is a type of music. Like rock, but harder.  It has an edge to it.  It’s not uncommon for the singing to be full of rage.”

How could I have not lost Rouye?  I might have been better off describing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting in pig Latin.

Classic get-to-the-point Rouye stepped up. “You’re not making a lick of sense.  Just play the song.”

“Okay, okay…but there’s a reason I want you to hear metal.”

“Which is?”

“To show you just how talented these guys are—just how gifted their voices are.  Trust me, you’re not going to like this first song.  But bear with me, and let me surprise you with something.”

And that’s when I cued up my iPod to the song Down With The Sickness by the group Disturbed.  All it took was the song’s opening tribal drum beat making way to David Draiman’s corrosive and guttural voice, to elicit a lifted eyebrow of uncertainty from Rouye.  Approaching 95 years old, and I had invited her into my car to get a shattering head full of heavy metal.  Could her morning start any worse?  What nightmares might she potentially have had as she settled into sleep that evening?  Gargoyles hovering above her, playing 12-string bass guitars? Or her freefalling into the molten caverns of inner-earth, while weighted down in a suit of medieval armor?

I made sure to cut those possibilities off at the pass, by playing just enough of Sickness to give her a taste of heavy metal music. There was no way I was going to inflict the entire song upon her.  “What do you think?” I asked.

“What do I think? What’s he saying? Why’s he barking like a dog?”

I couldn’t help but laugh.  “A dog… ha! But, I know…I hear ya.”

“And this is what you wanted to share with me?”

“Actually, yes. But there’s more to it. You know…don’t ever judge a book by its cover.”  I scrolled through my playlist of Disturbed songs until I found their version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence. “This is what I want you to hear.  It’s David Draiman—the same guy you just heard sing.  But this is his other side that not only illustrates his passion, but just how gifted he is.”

All it took were the first nine seconds of a piano leading to Draiman’s tender and beautiful voice.  So rich and captivating, you have no choice but to stop what you’re doing and listen. And if you’re Rouye Rush, you have no choice but to experience a reverent silence of admiration that slips you into a hypnotic trance just short of the dashboard.

Hello, darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

It’s hard to find a song that evokes as much emotion as this version.  I’ll never forget the sight of Rouye Rush.  Four months away from 95 years of age, and caught in the soaring notes of a heavy metal singer. At first impression, she’s not quite sure if the distorted style of his voice is, in fact, singing.  But make way for her open mind, and moments later she can’t believe that The Sound Of Silence is performed by the same person.

“He needs to do more songs like that one,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Really beautiful.  That song was meant to be sung that way.”

And that’s where I turned off the music, and we left the car to go work out in the gym.  As we walked, I couldn’t help but look at her and think about how different she was compared to the ten thousand people mentioned in the song…

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

David Draiman’s voice had delivered the song’s message like no one had done before.  And Rouye had not only heard it, she had truly listened.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

 

The Culvert

Frances McNair was not the problem.  Her reasons for speaking her mind were valid.  On the contrary, whatever it was that made me interpret her as being a complainer, meant only one thing…

The problem was in my head.

While I knew that what I did had hit a nerve in Frances, I had also convinced myself that it was not going to be easily rectified.  Funny how the mind can travel to such great lengths to put you in a state of avoiding someone.  For two years in my town’s Activity Center, I occasionally saw her, and each time my eyes drifted away.  While my degree of avoidance was neither created by hatred nor vile discontent, there was certainly the smell of something just not right with my thinking.

Then, one Saturday morning while running through a quiet neighborhood, I spotted her standing in a concrete culvert. For just the briefest moment, we caught sight of each other.  But it was merely fleeting as I continued down the street.  And as I ran, my pace quickened. What I saw—what I surmised was taking place in the culvert—had me unexpectedly smiling.   For it was then that I realized all of my suspicions were unfounded, and, without a doubt, that Frances McNair was a very admirable and giving person.  And, as I would later find out, highly approachable.  Funny—again—how you want to kick yourself for making a mountain out of mole hill.  But even funnier if you were to attempt that kick while running.  So, I didn’t.

*                    *                    *

My working life is comprised of writing, selling art, and personal training. Two years ago I was instructing a client during an early morning swimming workout at the Activity Center’s pool. Typically, she swam in the afternoons, but due to scheduling conflicts we agreed to train at 6:00AM, when the facility opened.

We were the newbies that morning amongst a crowded pool of regulars. So regular, it appeared the group understood which lane each person used, as if there was an established order. We managed to share half a lane with an older gentlemen who obligingly waved us in. After a few warm-up laps, I briefed my client about what her workout would entail. She went through a series of stretches, then began her first set of intervals.

And there I stood—my stop watch in hand, as I monitored her swimming mechanics. I made note of her split times and swung my arm in big circles when I needed her to push the pace.  I was a new sight to the regulars, and, to most, my coaching was inconsequential.

Frances McNair thought otherwise.

She had been sitting on a bench, waiting for a lane to become available.  Normally, it was no big deal, as there was nothing you can do when the lanes are full.  Just swallow a tablespoon of patience, then wait your turn.

But patience had been running thin that morning as Frances watched a swimmer and her coach occupy part of a lane. In Frances’ mind, my coaching was stepping across the boundaries of proper decorum, as I had chosen a time when the pool was busy.  The lifeguard was about to get an earful of how I was lacking tact—an earful that didn’t take long to get passed onto me.

“Way to go, Ros…way to go.” The lifeguard said as I was later leaving the pool. “McNair’s not happy with you.”

“McWho?”

“Frances McNair.”

“You mean, Tom’s wife?”

“Yep. You were coaching a swimmer in the pool.”

“That’s an issue?”

“Well,” she continued. “She says you were intruding on people’s swim time without paying for the lane.”

“But I’m a member.”

“Look, all I’m saying is McNair’s not happy.”

And though that was the extent of our conversation, I couldn’t keep it from looping in my head for weeks to come—a period of time where I never saw Frances. I had known her merely by association as being Tom’s wife. And I had known Tom only on a “Hi” and “Hello” basis from encounters at running club meetings from years past. It’s safe to say that I really never knew Frances, but rather, recognized her.

As often as I frequented the Activity Center, it was inevitable that our paths would cross.  And the morning that they did, was the morning we approached each other walking on opposite sides of the hallway.  The lifeguard’s words echoed in my head: McNair’s not happy, McNair’s not happy, McNair’s not happy…  A few strides before we passed, I glanced at her hoping that I might see some sort of truce—perhaps a smile to indicate that her unhappiness had been washed under the bridge. But there was no such luck.  Eyes forward, her tall, narrow frame moved on, leaving me wondering if this was just normal Frances, or if this was the Frances you saw when someone got under her skin?

As it turns out, Frances wasn’t avoiding me.  True, there had been one negative interaction between us, but her silence had nothing to do with it. Time had moved on.  There was no grudge.  In fact, there was no grudge to begin with. There was no animosity of any kind.   All that was happening was that she simply didn’t know me. She was nothing more than a woman walking down the hallway, minding her own business. The pool incident was of minor concern to her now.  I had blown it way out of proportion, by amplifying the duration of her frustration.

The problem was in my head.

The incident was nothing more than a blip on the radar of life’s bad experiences.  And if this were to be ranked as something bad, then I figured I needed to get my head together, change my perspective on what was really worth worrying about, and get over it.  I had taken Frances as being unwilling to forgive.  But who was I to talk?  After all, I had been doing the same to her. I needed to clear the air, and felt compelled to speak to her.

However, it wasn’t going to happen soon, as it would be months until I’d see her again. And when I finally did see her, I caught sight of a Frances McNair that I had no idea existed.

And it all started during an early Saturday morning run.

*                    *                   *

The long straightaway down Dartmouth Street was part of a five-mile course I ran weekly.  One of the common sights were the stray cats.  I would spot them walking or crouching along the grassy shoulder.  As I neared, they would dart into a large drain pipe located in a concrete culvert to seek safety from whatever danger I might have posed.  There were several places around town where groups of strays had made their homes.  Often, culverts played an integral part in providing shelter for the cats.  Run after run, the cats were as much a part of the scenery as the houses along the street.

Then came the morning when I spotted Frances standing in the culvert. And as I neared her, I saw that familiar, expressionless glance shared between us.  But this time, things were different.  This time as I ran beyond her, I smiled.  Though I wasn’t certain, it appeared that she was feeding the cats. Frances McNair? You feed the cats??

 But there was no denying what was going on when, two weeks later, I saw Frances at the Activity Center, and my suspicions were confirmed.  She had been walking laps around the perimeter hallways.  For two years, I hadn’t uttered a single word to her.  I hadn’t made any effort to break the ice. However, on this day, there was an eagerness to not only say hello, but to learn about the commendable Frances.

“Excuse me, Mrs. McNair,” I said approaching her from behind. “Do you have a minute or two?”

Sometimes all it takes is just one smile to convince yourself of the size of a person’s heart. One smile can extinguish unsettled and harbored feelings that have incubated for far too long, and then bring to life the unexpected surprise of a warm welcome.

Frances McNair had that smile.

“Hey, Ros!” she said with effervescent delight. “What’s up?”

 “A couple of weeks ago I was running down Dartmouth Street.  That was you in the culvert, right?”

“Yes, I remember seeing you.”

“You were feeding those stray cats, right?”

“Every day, yes.”

I paused as we walked. “Every day? For how long?”

“Twenty-five years.”

Twenty-five years.  That rolls the calendars back to 1992.  It was a time when I was working for UPS, delivering the dusty backroads of the Texas Hill Country.  I was getting chased by Rottweilers in Wimberley, feeding giraffes on an exotic ranch in Dripping Springs, getting frisked by the Secret Service at LBJ’s ranch in Stonewall, talking to a TV actor-converted-monk in the hills of Blanco, and learning to hate Christmas during the 15-hour workdays during peak season.

And where was Frances McNair?  She was embarking on a decision to band with a small group of dedicated dog and cat enthusiasts who would specialize in making good out of the vulnerable and meager lives of stray cats.  The non-profit group would eventually call their organization Pet Prevent a Litter of Central Texas (known as PALS).  From the beginning, Frances helped create programs that allowed for the neutering of the strays, as well as the adoptions of kittens and tame cats.  To this day, feral strays are trapped, neutered, and then returned to their colonies.  Older cats like Mother, Stripes, Socks, and White Whiskers may live in a culvert, but do so with the caring heart of Frances looking over them.  Tending to five different locations around town, she’s named them all.

Our discussion lasted a few minutes more before Frances said she had to be getting home.  It was time for me to go as well.  Walking to our cars in the parking lot, I had one remaining question on my mind…

“Frances, do you remember the incident at the pool two years ago?”

She smiled. “Yes, I do.”

“I didn’t mean to take up the lane the way I did.”

“Oh, it wasn’t you I was upset at,” she said.  “The Center had allowed for a private club to practice without paying during a popular swim time, and I just saw it all happening again.”

“Well—now, hear me out, please—I took you as kind of a complainer.  Of course, we all complain, but I kind of pinned it on you. And I blew it out of proportion for a long time, and it’s something I regret.  Then came that morning I was running down Dartmouth, and I saw you in the culvert feeding the cats, and I was like…you have a side I had no idea even existed.  Frances McNair has a story.  And it’s a story I want to write.  You okay with that?”

“Write about me?”

“Yes.  I have a writing blog.  I especially like to write about people—everyday life stuff.”

“Well, as long as you don’t make me out to be the horrible, evil Frances McNair, sure.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I’m beyond that.”

*                    *                    *

And here I now find myself—with the problem out of my head—writing at the end of Frances’ story. It’s been a long journey since the time of the pool incident.  And, admittedly, it’s been a lesson learned about how easily we can mischaracterize someone.  Frances had no ill will toward me.  She merely had a concern.

The end of her story is now the beginning of mine—having a clear mind to understand a Frances McNair I’ve never known.

I’m curious about her personal experience in dealing with the strays.  I want to know about the days of inclement weather when, despite the driving rain, freezing temperatures, or searing heat, she still took care of the cats. I want to know about conversations with people in the neighborhoods who might disagree with what she does.  There’s plenty to ask, but most important, I want to know what drives Frances McNair to be as dedicated as she is.

And I know exactly where to start…1992.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Socks

The man walked inside my exhibit tent, wearing an old T-shirt, tattered cargo shorts, running shoes, and a pair of mismatched socks.  He was about 30 years old, average build, and quiet.  I said, “Good morning” to him and a few others who began congregating in the booth.  Everyone responded appropriately, except for the man who now stood close to one of my paintings, craning his neck and squinting his eyes as if undergoing an inspection.  I couldn’t help but notice his mismatched socks that had peculiar designs.  From where I stood it was hard to make them out, so I sat down in my chair and discreetly leaned forward to get a better look.  We were now two men simultaneously inspecting each other’s property—one possibly intrigued by the sweet fruits of creativity or just killing time, the other by socks.

Bicycles. Each sock had a different bicycle design repeated on them.  The athlete in me looked at his calves. They were developed, like they had endured plenty of pedaling. Having a past of eating up the miles racing road bikes, I asked him, “Excuse me, but road or trail?”

He looked down at his socks, “Road,” he said. “All road.”

“Do you race?” I asked.

“Hardly. I ride to work,” he said, then returned to his quiet self that I took as being rather uninviting.

Behind him was a small table displaying my children’s books.  A middle-aged woman stood nearby. “Would you sign one to my mother? She collects books like these.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to.” I personalized her book, and took care of a couple of print sales as well.

After everyone had left, the man turned his attention to the books, then walked over and began flipping through the pages of Unexpected Tails.  “Your work is really clever,” he said.  “It’s very New Yorker…cerebral. These situations in which you depict wildlife—unusual, yet conveyed so well. And the humor…I just love the humor.”

His demeanor seemed average, like the type of person at a party whom I might avoid because I knew there wasn’t going to be much to talk about.  But this man suddenly lit a spark. His word selection and literary reference just didn’t seem to match who I thought I was talking to. Yet who was I talking to? Who had I made him to be? Not that educated was perhaps my first judgement. But there was so much more to come. This man was not only about to shut down my shallow, all-knowing conclusions, but lead me down a path unfolding some telltale signs of his life that were…well…may I say, indicatively beautiful.

I was curious about his biking as well as intellect. Funny how quickly the tables turn. One moment you’ve passed him as an average Joe, and the next you don’t want Joe to leave.

“So, you bike to work,” I said. “Is that difficult in San Antonio? I mean so many cars.”

“Not at all. I take a scenic route. No better way to travel.”

“And good exercise,” I said.

“Oh, so much more than that.  I’m not encased in a car.  I’m outside and listening to all the birds.  Nothing like the sound of birds in the morning.”

I would have been completely content had this been the only person I’d encountered at the show. I could never have made a single sale, and I would’ve gone home a far wealthier man than when I began that day. Not a dime in my pocket to show for a single sale, yet my pocket would be stuffed.  This man was an observer who saw the pieces of the whole.  And it was the want of his curiosity that not only fulfilled him, but had drawn me in as his audience of one.

So we talked about birds.  He said he found it interesting how such a foreign language intrigues us.  “We have general ideas about their communication, but we don’t know if they speak with inflection.”  Now he had my mind going… Is there something going on between the chirps, like nuances of expression? Is there dialogue? Are there two birds out there arguing over who did a half-ass job constructing the nest?  Riding his bike into a cool breeze on his way to work was one thing.  Add an endless series of musical trees along his way, and it was all he could ask for.

“So, where do you ride to?” I asked. “Where do you work?”

“The zoo.”

“And what do you do there?”

Without hesitation, he smiled and said, “I clean up after the animals.  I clean up their poop.”

“That’s your job? Like that’s what you do?”

“Pretty much.”

I wasn’t getting the full story. And I wasn’t about to let his intellectual insight and mismatched socks just walk away from me to remember him as that guy who swept up poop.  I knew I was two questions away from tapping into what really made him tick.  It’s not easy getting personal with someone you’ve only known for ten minutes, but…what the hell…

“Okay,” I said. “I have to admit, you have me very intrigued.  You’re smart, you’re educated, and you see the world in a way that most people don’t.  You’re not just an observer, but rather someone who dives into what he’s seeing.  You get into it. But this zoo job of yours…I mean that’s what you do…I get that…but why?  I mean what about ambition?”

For the first time, there was a pause in his answer.  He lightly bounced his head as if conceding, Okay, you win.

“The job—it’s all about my mother,” he said. “She’s ill, and can’t really take care of herself.  So I looked for a job that was easy, outside, and close by with flexible hours.  No, it’s not a dream job, but it works. I’m able to give her a lot of attention.”

As if that wasn’t enough for me to praise the guy, he then went on to address my second question…

“Ambition?  I’m pretty familiar with it. I have a double-degree from Boston University in psychology and biology.  I plan to move up as a specialist animal caretaker.  This current job is just a stepping stone.  It generates just enough money to keep me afloat for tending to mom.”

He looked at one of my framed originals titled, Fear Of Heights, which depicts a lioness sheepishly looking upwards as she walks through the legs of a large group of giraffes.

“You know,” he said, “There’s so much behavior in animals.  And so I share a lot of my knowledge with the people visiting the zoo.  I see the caretakers in their uniforms, but I don’t see them engaging with the public and educating them, like going out of their way to talk to the folks.  You can only imagine what I must look like, walking up to them with a poop collector in one hand, a broom in the other, and then telling them about ostrich mating habits.  Understandably, they’re not quite sure what to make of me, but I think that all quickly fades as they can tell I know my shit.”

We both laughed as he concluded, “Well, you know.”

Soon after that, our conversation ended.  He purchased a few note cards, then we shook hands as I wished him well.  I told him I’d try to make a trip to the zoo so that he could give me his inside animal information tour.

And who knows, if I leave early enough, I just might find him on his bike commuting to work.  He certainly will be easy to spot—the man smiling as he pedals, and listening to the music in the trees.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Man In The Chair: Discovered

In my last story, The Man In The Chair, I described my observations of a man who appeared to be troubled by something, but it was something I couldn’t figure out.  In the end, it was a man I never talked to.  So I walked away, taking my assumptions with me.

It is now one week later, and, I must say, it’s a beautiful thing when opportunity knocks twice…

I talked to the man in the chair.

I had gone to the library, again, to write a story.  Much of my writing is done on my phone which makes it easy to write at any time or place.  I settled into the same chair in which I had sat across from the man the week before.  For ten minutes I paid no attention to my surroundings, but was simply immersed in writing.  That is, until I looked up.

There he sat, across from me—the man from my story. And there I sat, surprised, staring at him and wondering what to do as he read a newspaper.  I was reluctant to introduce myself. I knew nothing about this man. What if I tell him I wrote a story and he takes offense? What if he makes a scene?  What if he tells me to mind my own business? I was not going to let this be a missed opportunity.

 My focus had quickly slipped from my writing as I continued to take glances at the man. It was inevitable that I would say something. A few minutes passed before he got up to go to the magazine racks where he selected Guitar, then returned to his seat.  Hmmm…interesting…a musician. I mean who else looks at pages of musical notes? Good chance he plays the guitar, which means he enjoys the arts, which means there’s a greater chance he’ll like my story. I waited for him to close the magazine before I spoke.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” he replied.

“I’m a writer. I have a book coming out this year.” I paused. There were so many different angles from which to start the conversation.  “I really don’t know where to begin.” I paused a second time, then extended my hand.  “I’m Ros.”

“I’m John,” he said, leaning forward to accept the handshake.

“I write about people. You sat there this past weekend staring at the ceiling. You caught my attention. I couldn’t help but wonder what you were thinking. You seemed lost in thought. So I wrote this story.”

I showed him my phone which was opened up to my writing blog site displaying the title, The Man In The Chair. 

“That’s you. I wrote about you.”

Taken by surprise, he said, “You wrote about me?”

“Yes. It looked like you were dealing with something. Like a problem or a loss. I hope I’m not getting too personal, but something was obviously weighing on you.”

Where a week ago I had walked away, never to know what was burdening him, I now had put him in a position to divulge his anguish.

John looked at me for just a moment, then chuckled. He pointed up through a large window next to where we sat. “See that wasp nest up there, under the eave? I was studying that. Watching them build.”

Forget that I was in a library—a public sanctuary for silence. I just flat out laughed. “THAT!?” I said. “THAT was your problem? All the struggle I knew you were dealing with—something that was certainly wrenching deep inside you…and your ‘problem’ was that wasp nest!? This is just too funny.”

How was it possible I was that far off the mark? I was certain he had made a poor decision, said something he later regretted, or had possibly suffered some kind of a loss.  But, no. Far from it…

A wasp nest!

“Well, here it is if you’re interested,” I said, offering my phone to him so that he could read the story. “But please understand, it’s an observational story based on my assumptions.”

“No problem,” he said, putting on a pair of reading glasses. “I’d like to read it.”

For five minutes I watched John read—his expression changing from smiling to one of attentiveness.  I couldn’t help but wonder where his mind might be traveling. Here I was, a complete stranger, handing him a phone that contained a short story written specifically about him. He had every right to be weary of me—skeptical that I might have ulterior motives.

But when he finished reading and handed back my phone, it was clear he had cast aside whatever doubts he might have possessed regarding motives or just me in general.

As it turns out, there was something going on well beyond the wasp nest. John looked out the window toward the passing cars beyond the library’s property.  He began to reminisce and speak openly of his past and current state.

“Your story.” He paused, as if collecting himself. Continuing to look out the window, he pointed blindly back at my phone. “Your story…it hit me.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He spoke softly with a peaceful demeanor.  “You wrote that you wanted to tell me that things will get better, that happier days are ahead. You know, you could never have told me that one day I’d be homeless. That each night at the age of 65 I’d have to look for a patch of dirt or grass, or a slab of concrete to sleep on for the night.  It’s crazy. I mean I’ve had some incredible memories in my life.”

I had to interject, and said, “Such as being a guitarist?”

“Actually, no.” He said. “I was a drummer. Used to play with a group called ‘Ronnie and the Sonics’. We opened for Willie Nelson at his 4th of July picnic concert in Applebee, Texas. Those were great times. Hell, a couple of our songs made the top charts list in Sweden of all places. It was pretty cool.”

John paused, lightly shaking his head, then continued.

“You know, my mom always said that no matter what, things never stay the same. Everything changes. It doesn’t mean they’ll change for the better. Things can also change for the worse.  So here I am, homeless.  But I know one thing…you gotta believe in yourself to improve. Things don’t just come to you.”

The dynamics of John’s story unfolds as I learn he used to be a welder. But he says if he could do it all over again he’d have been a chef, as he loves to cook. He has a son that lives in San Marcos and a daughter that lives in Austin. Due to the complexities of their situations, neither is in a position to help him out. His homeless condition has been going on for four months now. It was a sudden and unexpected reality when his landlord nearly tripled the rent on his mobile home.  His only source of income is $900 from Social Security that is deposited into his bank account each month. All of his possessions are in a storage unit. I told him I’d keep my feelers out for any bargain rental spaces in town. But San Marcos being the fastest growing city in America, the likelihood of a “bargain” is slim.

At the end of our conversation, John said he wanted to go to Fredericksburg. “I hear there’s a huge bat colony that flies out from an old gypsum mine each night in the summer. I’d love to see that. There’s a $23 bus tour from here I can take. I’m gonna do it.”

The man in the chair, like all of us, has a story. And he also has a name. I think there’s a lot that John’s going to do. I think he has enough ambition to find a way to a simple, but comfortable place to live. It may be a little bumpy getting there, but eventually he’ll find his way.  And it doesn’t need to be much…just enough to be called Home.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Man In The Chair

He sat slumped in a cushioned chair in the library. One arm extended on the arm rest with the hand relaxed over the edge. The other hand, holding a tissue, was on his lap.  Neck arched back—his head rested on top of the back cushion. His watery eyes, which stared directly at the ceiling, were looking beyond the ceiling.  His physical being was in the library, but he was far removed.

I had come to work on a humorous story—to find a quiet, secluded spot to let my imagination run free.  Funny how within the confines of your head, just how far a thought can travel.  Most of the time you have complete control of its whereabouts, while other times a thought can wander off, but then reappear more inspiring than when it had left.  I guess what intrigues me most about imagination is the never knowing of how a thought ever arrived, and what creative path it will eventually take.  But on this particular day, my imagination hit a road block.  Humorous creativity wasn’t flowing.  Instead, I had found something else—a curiosity about the man in the chair.

At times he took deep breaths, followed by slow exhalations as he simultaneously closed his eyes.  These were the moments he would lightly rock his head side to side.  But for the majority of the time that I watched him, his eyes were open, fixated on something—something that only he could see.  Perhaps something that he wished wasn’t there—a regret, a mistake, or possibly a loss.

I wanted to lean towards him and say, “Whatever it is, it’ll get better.” I wanted to assure him that happier days lie ahead. I didn’t know this man, but I wanted to guide him in a better direction.

I also didn’t want to say a word.  I didn’t want to engage.  I didn’t want to make any eye contact.  I wanted him to save himself.  Don’t initiate. You know nothing about this man.  He carries baggage you have no knowledge of.  Write your humorous story, and stay distant.

But the tears—the moist tissue in his hand—I could not ignore them.  He was struggling.  Back and forth, I weighed the pros and cons of whether or not to talk with him.  There’s a story here. There’s emotion. And there’s a man in need.

I’ve always said that anyone’s deepest struggle is just one conversation away from being rescued.  All I needed to do was reach out and give him a listening ear or some helpful words of advice.  And if my advice might fall short of its intention, then at least I’d have given him some conversation, which, on its own, would be therapeutic.

For nearly an hour my mind traveled, running the gamut of just what possibly could be wrong.  Oddly, it was almost as if I was getting to know him—that I was beginning to understand whatever it was I didn’t know.  Look at someone long enough, and sometimes you begin to wonder if, in fact, you’ve met that person before.

My time was up.  I had to leave the library. I collected my belongings and made my way for the door.  I had come to write a humorous story, but had written nothing.  Instead, I walked away, only to be inspired by a thought a week later…

I wrote a story about a man I never talked to.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

A Nugget Of Wisdom

I was exhibiting my art at the Pecan Street Art Festival in Austin, Texas, when a boy about seven years old and his parents walked up to my booth. I always do a signing for my children’s books which I set on a table at the entrance.  The boy was enthralled with the books—his eyes grew larger each time he turned a page.  “Mom! Dad! Come see these!”

What could be more beautiful than the excited voice of a child calling his parents to join him in a moment of discovery? What could possibly deter the parents from giving him their attention? Perhaps a round of bickering between the mother and father…

“We should go,” he said. “It’s too hot anyway.”

“But we just got here.” she replied.

“I don’t like the heat.”

“It’s not too hot.”

“There’re too many people anyway.”

She looked him straight in the eyes. “This is ridiculous. Why’d we even come?”

He shot a stare directly back at her and said, “That’s what I’m sayin’.”

As they stood a few feet behind their son, the father ordered, “Put down the book.  We need to keep moving.”

Continuing to flip through the pages, the child was captivated by the book. “Look at this whale!”

The dad elevated his voice. “Let’s go!”

Shaking her head, the mother said, “Just great. So glad we came today.”

The father grabbed his son’s arm, and led him away.  That was the last time I would ever see them.

Just a parental dispute? Not quite.  There was more to it that caught my eye.

It was the father.  I could not stop looking at him.  And in doing so, I could not stop thinking about the boy.  What were his chances of growing up without being bombarded by negative influences?  In fact, I had wondered about that before the three had arrived at my booth.  In the distance I had spotted the father wearing a tank top.  On the front of it, and in large bold letters, it read:

SHUT

THE

F**K

UP!

I get it. Blatant.  In-your-face shock value.  A rebellious streak has been riding on your shoulders for quite some time, years in fact.  Say what you want and express it as you wish.  But, dude, you’re about 35 years of age, and you have a young, impressionable boy. I don’t care if you’re walking the streets at a crowded art fair or grilling burgers in the backyard…trash the shirt before it trashes your kid…if it’s not too late.  Lord knows what your language is like at home—walls thickly painted with profanity.

Seven years old.

The father was under my skin, quickly becoming rancid and septic.  And there they stood at my booth: the child lost in the imagery of my books, while the parents argued behind him with classy dad sporting the bold statement of the day.

I could not let this moment pass by without capturing it.  While I would certainly relay to my friends what I had seen, it would take more than words to convey the full impact. So I took out my phone and discretely took a photo of the three. The father’s shirt was clear as day.

*                 *               *

The art festival was on the weekend.  By noon the following Monday, I had shown the picture to nearly twenty people. “Want to see a photo of a kid who doesn’t have a chance? Oh, and that’s his dad behind him…”

Everyone’s reaction was no different than mine: appalled and sad.  For three days I continued to share the image and voice my opinion about the father.  I lost sleep over the photo. I could not erase the four bold words printed on his shirt.  I could not unsee it.

Then along came a conversation with a friend named Dianne…

“Ros, you know that photo you showed me earlier? It bothers you, doesn’t it?”

I don’t often admit to things that bother me, as I usually do a pretty good job of ignoring them.  “Well,” I said. “I wouldn’t say I’m bothered so much as I’m just intrigued by the scene I captured.”

“I understand that, “she said.  “But you’re showing it to everyone because it bothers you. Right?”

I hadn’t shown it to Dianne with the hopes that she’d turn therapist on me. But it sure felt that way.  “Okay, yes, it bothers me.” What was next? Hypnosis? Delve into my childhood? Interpret my dreams?

“I’m going to give you some advice,” she said. “Some Jim Pape wisdom.”

Jim Pape was her late husband. He had passed away five years prior. A defense lawyer, Jim was well known for not only delivering great story jokes, but had a gift for putting things in perspective that often contained a valuable nugget of enduring wisdom.

“Obviously,” she continued. “The child in that photo doesn’t have much of a role model as a father.  No doubt, the father’s shirt is disgraceful.  But think about this:

There is nothing you can do about the father.  You’ll never be able to change him.”

“And that’s the great wisdom you’re passing on to me?”

Dianne let out a slight chuckle. “No, Ros. The wisdom is this: Chances are you’ll never see him again. But as long as you keep showing that photo, and as long as you keep talking about it, well, that father will continue to live rent-free in your head.”

“But, it’s such a great photo. It captures everything.”

“I get it, Ros. I get the dynamics of the photo. But my suggestion is to delete it. Let it go.”

I couldn’t argue with her. Living rent-free in my head was exactly what was going on. It was as if I’d granted the dad total access to every virtual square inch of my brain. He had become a fixation that I could not turn away from: in the grocery store, at a gas station, on a group run, or throughout my work day. It got to the point that if I wasn’t showing the photo, then I was at least describing it.

Living rent-free, and the worst tenant possible. Dianne was right: there was nothing I could do to change a person who I’d never see again. I must admit though, he sure made for great conversation. Not one person sided with the dad. Nobody shared his choice for freedom of expression. It was unanimous: he was a jerk.

Still, how long did I want to continue parading the photo around town? How long would I lug this fixation around with me? By the end of the week, I made a decision to evict the tenant.

Heeding the wisdom of Jim Pape, I selected the photo from my phone one last time.  I gazed into the innocent child’s face mesmerized by my books. Such a pure and beautiful moment for him. I can only hope my books would be everlasting memories.

And right there, before I pressed DELETE, I wished the child farewell.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Zipper

Some people are indifferent about bugs. They don’t love them. They don’t hate them. Bugs are bugs. Oh, look…it’s a cricket on my shoulder! What an amazing little creature!

Not me.

A cricket lands on my shoulder, and I don’t even give it a chance to be identified. As I slap whatever it is far into the yard, I shudder and squirm while making a pitiful, crybaby-like face as if I just witnessed someone slowly chewing a mouthful of live worms.

I go through the same physical gyrations whenever I see a spider larger than a dime.  Especially if it’s within six inches of my face and closing fast, such as the time I was cursed with rotten luck while riding my lawn mower. I had been cutting the grass for about an hour—eyes down, focused on the pathway—when, by chance, I happened to look up, and spotted a zipper spider, known for the zipper-like design spun in the center of their webs. They are black and yellow, and make Death look more approachable. Websites will tell you zipper spiders can get up to 1.5 inches long. This is a lie. Their bodies alone are the size and volatility of a hand grenade, and legs like knitting needles.  Other unreliable sources will tell you the spiders are basically harmless, that they only deliver a bee-like sting. Another lie. Zipper spiders can devour goats, flocks of birds, and human heads in an hour. It is my personal belief that they can also hurl large stones over fifty feet.  It’s not a matter of whether or not you can escape their super glue-like webs, but rather how fast you can run.

I was all white knuckles on the mower as panic coursed through my brain. I took my foot off the accelerator, then began madly stomping the metal floor board where a small brake pedal was located…somewhere.  How many thousands of times had I stepped on that brake pedal without looking? And now, as I coasted closer to the spider, my size 13 shoe was failing me.

Six inches from nose-planting into arachnida vampirea, my foot finally found the brake pedal. I hit it hard, but that might not have been the best decision as the sudden change in direction lurched me forward…

*           *           *

Maybe this isn’t a story about my fear of spiders. Maybe it was never intended to be all about me. Maybe it’s about understanding and acceptance. Maybe that’s a stretch?

I don’t think so.

One more inch, and I would’ve touched the web. It would’ve been my end. The zipper spider would’ve consumed my head within the hour. But there was no chance as the miracle of the mower’s reverse pedal backed me safely away.

Twenty feet out, I stopped and shut off the engine. My heart pounding, I needed to cut the grass beneath the web and beyond. I had only one option…destroy the spider.

I went into the house and snatched a broom from the pantry. It’s always been my go-to weapon of destruction when dealing with domestic critters. I’ve shot many scorpions across the kitchen floor like they were hockey pucks. And spiders…oh, I’ve cleared countless pathways blocked by their annoying webs.

The spider hadn’t budged. It was positioned directly over its zipper webbing. Even standing six feet away, I felt extremely vulnerable. Ok, I might have exaggerated a little. So it didn’t eat goats or flocks of birds. So it really was about 1.5 inches in length. So what. It still had the ability to mess with my mind.

I turned with my left side facing the spider, then took a batter’s stance, holding the broom like a bat. Eye on the target. One mighty swing and I’d smash it out of the yard.  But then came the memory of my Little League baseball coach from decades ago. He was always reminding me of the basic fundamental tenets of the game. “Don’t just swing at any pitch,” he’d say. “Make sure it’s the right pitch.” How many times had I swung at pitches too high or too low and, in the process, struck out? How many times had I walked back to the dugout feeling dejected because I knew I had made a poor decision? Too many.

The zipper spider’s web—what an incredible architectural construction of innate ability. Despite how much I detest spiders, I could not deny its impressive geometrical design. The spider’s survival was dependent upon the strength and placement of its web, which had been spun between a vegetable garden’s fence post and a bush. Outside of violent weather and brush fires, the web’s integrity was vulnerable to one major threat: man.

Knees bent and feet slightly more than shoulder width apart, I settled into an athletic position. To generate the most power, I shifted my weight to the back leg. Like golf, the most effective swing comes from a relaxed grip, but the mere presence of the spider forced my hands to choke the broom.

Make sure it’s the right pitch. 

What could possibly be wrong with this pitch? I hated spiders, and this particular one was right in the strike zone. But in the moment of giving myself the green light to swing, I was interrupted by a moth that had carelessly flown into the web, and with no hope of escaping. There it would perish, destined to be a meal for one.

Sure enough, I watched the spider quickly react to the vibrations of its web, before spreading its legs over the moth and silencing it.

I found myself not favoring the spider’s predatory mastery, nor seeking to interfere and save the moth (how I would have accomplished that, I have no idea). I relaxed my grip on the broom and brought it down to my side.  Watching and accepting the scene as a whole, I let the spider be. Even though my annihilation of the spider could have been defined as “natural” since I am part of nature, I chose to isolate myself from such destruction, and admire the mechanical engineering required to stabilize the web. I was embarking on an understanding of just how mathematical spiders are. Their innate knowledge of trigonometry in relation to angular tensions is unmatched within the animal kingdom.  As much as I hated this spider, I decided not to swat it to smithereens, but basically gave it freedom to move about my yard. For a moment—well, several moments—I wondered if I had simply lost my mind.

*        *        *

Some people are indifferent about bugs. They don’t love them. They don’t hate them. Bugs are bugs. Oh, look…it’s a cricket on my shoulder!  What an amazing little creature!

 Yep, that’s me.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017