I was watching NASCAR at a bar the other day. Normally, I would never watch NASCAR, but it was what was on the T.V.. I thought about how great it would be if NASCAR made a rule change and installed traffic lights on the course. The lights would randomly change from Red to Green, no Yellows. There would be no pattern to the changing; drivers would not be able to time it. For every Red light that a driver runs, he shall be assessed a 500 dollar fine after the race and 10 seconds shall be added to his final driving time. I would like to see just one race in my lifetime with this rule. Perhaps it would make the sport appear more practical, as if the traffic lights would make NASCAR jump off the track and into the living room, saying: “Hey Kids – If you ever find yourself driving really fast, and you have to stop for traffic lights, here’s how its done”. No one ever runs from the cops on a circular race track!
A man with droopy skin on his face chases beer cans in the middle of Cesar Chavez Boulevard. His glasses have slipped out nearly to the end of his nose. If he moves his head too quick, they will most likely go flying. But he does not look like the kind of man who moves his head very quickly. He has a thick and flabby neck. He is having a difficult time collecting the cans; it is not easy for him to bend all the way over. He is tall and overweight, but not obese. He looks like he has stiff muscles in the back and legs. There are maybe a dozen Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, the tall ones, that have been knocked out of a paper bag that he is trying to put them back into. The wind blew the bag over. Most of the cans have been blown back into the gutter where he collects them with relative safety. The cars have funneled into the middle lane while he works. There are three cans that have been caught out among the wheels of the cars. One is flattened by a pickup truck, another rattles beneath the tail pipe of a slick looking red car, probably named after a horse or a predatory cat. When he is done collecting the cans in the gutter, the man stands on the curb, looking into the middle of the street at the cans lost to traffic. His face droops and he frowns. The light changes and our line of cars move. The man turns around and starts walking back up an alley, the wind blowing at his slacks and blazer.
I saw a funeral procession and thought, “That man is an asshole. Why is a dead man causing a traffic jam?” Then I started to think about the legacy that this man would leave behind and it occurred to me that there were far MORE cars pulled over than there were in the procession itself. So there were probably some people thinking about the time he got married, or a time that he did a good thing for someone else. But a larger number of people must be annoyed at the string of SUVs forcing them to the side of the road, just so a dead guy can get somewhere. It’s not like he’s in a hurry or anything. And maybe everyone else that had to pull over was just fine with it; it’s possible that I was the only one frustrated. Maybe the guy was a total dickweed when he was alive, and he knew that this would be his one last chance to mess with everybody’s day. It’s more likely that I’m the asshole instead, especially since I wasn’t in a hurry either.
It’s like when you’re driving down 17th Ave., and you come up to the little bumps that are made where a small side street dares to cross, and your mom speeds up just a little bit going over and when you start to come down the far side, you get that wonderful feeling in the bottom of your gut, that gently planetary pressure pushing down, and it’s like a glorious supernova tickling the inner linings of your intestines. It’s called astronaut tummy.
A man stands on the side of the bridge. He has a sign and the sign asks for money. Everyone who crosses the bridge sees this man; he must be one of the most famous people in town. He waves at everyone. When there is traffic, the man puts his sign down and waves people onward. His traffic directing is not official but sometimes can be very helpful. Sometimes when I see him I feel as if there should be a toll to cross this bridge; it might be very much like the old days. Not something absurd or expensive. Maybe just a dollar or a cup of coffee or a sandwich or a cigarette. Whatever’s available. And there’s no penalty if you are empty handed on a given day. Just make sure to give something next time. Because he will be there. Until one day, he is not there anymore. Traffic will move on, the bridge will remain, and someone new will move in with a different sign that also asks for money. I will wonder if life would be different if I had given something to the man with the sign.
I hate the phrase ‘mind’s eye’. This was because I first heard it from my 8th grade English teacher, a woman whom I loathed and continue to loathe with all my being. Her name was Judi Marcus and all she cared about was Anne Frank. It was all we ever talked about in class. Worst of all, she didn’t have anything new to add, anything unique to offer regarding the experience of Anne Frank or the diary itself. Sometimes class felt like being cooped up there in that attic, wanting nothing more than just to be a kid in the modern world. So maybe that’s why it stuck out to me, really wedged in my brain, when she finally said something I hadn’t heard before. “Try to imagine it in your mind’s eye,” she said, referring to that small attic apartment, where Anne wrote the words that would make her famous. When she explained what mind’s eye meant, I realized she was just referring to something that I already had, and so did everyone else: an imagination. Specifically, a visual dimension of the imagination. I was crestfallen, that this “Mind’s Eye” she spoke of wasn’t some greater, unknown thing to me. Or perhaps I was let down because all she had done was put words to something that I wanted to remain wordless. Every thirteen year old can see things in his own head. I spent my entire day back then, imagining what my teachers did when they went home, what girls looked like under their clothes, or what the world would be like if I could manipulate the fabric of space-time. So all this woman did for me, was ruin a perfectly good thing by putting a name on it. And because this woman had nothing to offer me, I got hung up on the only two words that felt new. I remember once, a few years after that terrible day, my dad used the phrase “mind’s eye”. I was trying to describe the book “Ender’s Game” to him, a particular part of the book about a game of laser tag in null gravity. I was having a tough time explaining how the kids moved themselves around this room without gravity and my dad said, “It’s okay, I can see it in my mind’s eye.” The moment he said it, the book and everything it meant to me fled from my mind, ran like a rabbit who has just scented wolves. I lost control of my body and recoiled in my seat; my arms shrunk to my sides, curling in with mutant fingers. My knees came up to my chest, hopelessly trying to protect me from this evil that had just entered the room. My own Dad had turned into that horrible woman! It was her, now standing where he had just been at the counter, cutting potatoes for dinner. She was in my own home; she had snuck her way into every little crevice of my life. She was the mud stain that never comes out of your favorite shirt, and not a mud stain that you can be proud of. One that makes you embarrassed. One that makes the insides of you want to go even further inside. One that you cannot hide from. It was the most disgusting thing that I had ever heard. The person at the counter eventually turned back into my father, although I’m not quite sure when. The events leading up to that moment are quite clear, but what happened after the words “mind’s eye” came out of his mouth is terrible and blurry. I simply don’t remember. Like I said, I know my dad eventually came back to being himself, but I can’t say exactly when. I was so shocked, I literally turned my brain off, afraid that if he said it again, he would turn into her for good.
She was the same teacher who assigned a book report once and let us choose our own books, with the only restriction being that it had to be a Classic. My first choice was Don Quixote, which she shot down as “not being a Classic”. She was an English teacher mind you. My second choice was Shogun, because while she had shot down Don Quixote at roughly 1200 pages, I was going to shove it in her face with an undeniable 1400 pages. I was gonna show her so hard. I never finished the book. I never even reached the halfway point. In fact, I don’t remember if I even made it to page 100, but I wrote a bitchin book report. I got a B.
Santiago hatched when I was twenty-two. He died later that same year, as most dragonflies do. I’m not sure if he died of old age or in an unfortunate accident in which he was consumed by a grizzly bear or a large lake trout, but I do know for a fact that he died.
Before Santiago was his dragonfly self, he was a water beetle, about as long as the end segment of my pinkie finger. He had a hard shell, colored somewhere between olive-sunrise and amber-brown. Chad and I met Santiago down on the rocky shores of Lake McDonald, in Glacier National Park. We were smoking weed, which is illegal inside national parks, and also illegal outside national parks, but there is something about breaking federal laws that makes you feel more “rebellious”. Anyway, that fact is irrelevant to the story, but it’s what we were doing when we met Santiago. He had no shame. He crawled out of the icy water, pushed himself right up between us and sat, fat on his ass between Chad and I. Of course, we were obligated to share our joint with the little guy, and we were more than content to blow puffs of smoke his way.
We sat there watching the shell of this water beetle slowly crack down the ridge of his back. It was like a child taking off a one piece pajama suit. His blood was green, and when I first saw it, I imagined that he had just come from inside the tube of a Las Vegas casino sign and had sucked up all the pulsing neon gas. But we were thousands of miles from that scorched strip of land; Santiago of course, had never been to Vegas. We watched the shell open further and a pair of stained glass wings folded out. I don’t know what material dragonfly wings are made of, but it couldn’t have been any thicker than a few atoms. There was a clear film that stretched between a network of thicker, more fibrous material that gave the wings their structure. When the sun hit the clear film though, it swirled with color – like when light hits a prism and a rainbow explodes. The electric green blood ran down the edges of the wings, and dripped onto the smooth rocks of the lake shore. There were still little droplets of the blood on Santiago’s back. He stretched his wings from their folded position and let himself dry in the heat of the world. He sat, like Chad and I, barely moving, immune to everything happening on the planet that wasn’t in this immediate place. Politics and foreign wars didn’t matter. Traffic ceased to exist. We could have discovered life on other planets that day, but it wouldn’t have been important; we were discovering the life on our own.
It wasn’t long before Santiago had dried off, lifted his wings, caught the wind and left us for the rest our lives. I was proud of him – learning to fly like that. Santiago went into the world without fear, without hesitation. I felt love for him, like a mother might feel for a child; a love that is stronger when it flies away. A part of me wanted him to come back, bring some laundry home, ask for beer money, but a deeper part of me knew that this was the way things were meant to be.
The joint had gone out and Chad and I could hear a car pulling into the parking lot just up the bank from us. It was another group of kids also coming to smoke on the lake. There were the cordial hellos and understanding nods of stoners who cross paths, but I felt very separated from them. In forty-five minutes, I had fallen in love with something, and had to let it go; these other kids simply would never be able to understand that. Chad and I skipped a handful of rocks on Lake McDonald, got in the car and went home. Santiago floated up over the water and into the crisp air of Northwest Montana and into memory.