Strolling back to the Fortress of Employment from the Little Rock Farmer’s Market this morning (The Observer’s haul: two tiny watermelons and a loaf of tomato/herb/cheese bread from the Old Mill), Yours Truly was standing at the red light at the end of President Clinton Avenue waiting to cross when we heard our dead father call our name. Turning, we saw our Uncle Gene, our father’s youngest brother, leaning out the passenger-side window of a pickup truck festooned with ladders. The Observer hasn’t seen him in maybe five or six years. He’s grayer and balder than he used to be, no longer the strapping young man who used to lift weights in the dirt yard of Grandma’s house down in Higgins Switch. His face, however, is the same: a round, soft, jovial mug so like our father’s that it gave us a little start until we realized who he was. Uncle Gene, like virtually every other member of The Observer’s prodigious paternal clan, is still out there on the roof, like The Observer’s father was until virtually the day he died, and his father’s father. It rained in Little Rock on Monday, and rain means leaks. Uncle Gene extended his hand, and after a second of juggling in which The Observer managed to drop our bread in the gutter, we shook. The light turned green. Uncle Gene said his goodbye in a voice so like The Observer’s dad, and then the man at the wheel turned right and motored away down Cantrell, the truck soon disappearing back into the life we seemed destined to as a child. The Observer stared after him until he was gone, and a while after that. Then we walked back to the office, where we sit now under fluorescent lights, typing this, and pensively eating a slice of bread.
Some of our tendency to drift off in introspection may have something to do with the fact that The Observer just got back from vacation: a week-long sojourn that took us to the sugar-sand beaches of Pensacola. We don’t like the feeling of sand sticking to our pasty white flesh, so it’s been 10 years since The Observer has been to the beach. After a long, cold, winter however, Spouse finally put her pedicured, be-sandaled foot down. We soon found ourselves booking a hotel, buying an ice chest and sunscreen and an extra-sturdy Big Tex beach chair (weight capacity: mucho!) and all the other various accoutrements needed to survive and thrive on the desert coast of Florida. Back in 2010, when BP took a leak all over those beaches, with videos surfacing daily of the white sands looking like black Evil was emerging from the sea to claim Florida, we worried that place was spoiled for a generation. We look at the Internets, so we know the situation in the Gulf isn’t “back to normal” by a long shot, but we were surprised at how life goes on in Pensacola: beautiful beach full of fishbelly white tourists in their new swimsuits, the ocean lapping, the sunrises and sunsets still lovely. There is something about the ocean that we’ll never get over, something that is part of the reason The Observer is happy to keep a reverent distance here in Arkansas. There is an immensity to the sea in fact and philosophy — the knowledge that the day you were born, the waves on that beach were lapping, as they will be tomorrow, and the next day, and the day you die, and probably the day the sun burns out. That, along with the line at the horizon where the sky meets the water — so like the gutter between two pages in a book — is enough to make anybody feel small. The Observer is from Hill Folk. It makes us uneasy to be able to see the knife edge where the world falls away. The Observer often found himself squinting for dragons, poking their scaly heads over the edge of the world. Still, existential questions aside, it was lovely. That first night, behind sore from 10 hours of driving and the sun melting into the half-water-half-earth horizon to the west, Spouse and her Dearest walked down to the edge of the land and stared at the waves, lapping, lapping, lapping, lapping. It had stormed that day, and there were dark clouds and lighting skittering along the book-gutter horizon. Where the waves come up, there is a berm of sand, and we sat in that sand together, The Observer leaning back so that the sand conformed perfectly to our body, cradling us. And we closed our eyes. And our cares drained away. And then we listened to the sound of the waves, which will still be casting their treasures there on the day we die.