What You Don’t See

I knelt on the ground outside the ER, retching blood miserably into the sodden concrete, already wet with the early morning dew. There was little in the way of conscious thought, just memory, wrecked by time and space and hurt and disease and loneliness. A single bit of mica winked in the streetlight as bright blood spattered. A life worth living. A life not worth living. A simple thing, really, a veil that parts on occasion and lets us see into our own souls, sometimes in the worst of moments. I wonder why I have drug myself this far, and then I feel the corners of the folded photographs in my pocket.

The nurse held the two pictures and looked at me curiously. I have carried the one for twelve years, not the original, mind you. It has worn through many times, creased and broken and worn, but never lost. I carry the file, the true original, in a zip drive. This rendition is dutifully worn, dusted from sunlight, creased from use, covered in memory and longing. A white hat. A flowered bikini. Big sunglasses. A surfboard rests in the sand nearby. You can’t see it, but I know it’s there.

I want to see more, see what else is there, what the picture doesn’t show. I try and tell the nurse. I desperately reach for the picture as consciousness ebbs, bends. Light distorts and I feel the gravity of the blood I have lost. I see the fine sand stuck to the girl’s legs, I smell the odor of sunscreen and Carolina air and peach shaving gel. I see the worn white slightly platform flip-flops, thinking who wears those? I see them in the top of our closet, twelve years later.

I smell the smoke of distant beach fires, the spray of hurricane winds. I see the worn toenail polish. I struggle to ask the nurse why the girl painted her toes but not her fingernails? I smell sweat and feel the chill of morning air as we run the early morning trail, mists swirling off the mountains, bodies floating, easy. I see a wedding dress with closed loop buttons, a thousand bobby pins scattered on a bed from hair that had never been more beautiful. The steps of a distant land. The smell of fish grilling over a fire. The smell of a stone wall in the suns early glare. My love seemed huge in the space of the room.

Tears roll down my face and the picture seems to fall. There are yells. I see the creases and the years, the western sun, a big blue barn. I see a sailing vessel, a family, a patriarch. A great man. Mild and gentle, wise and melancholy, so much better than me. A man who shared his daughter, his love, his life, with me.

The other picture is of a little boy, as blonde as his mother, in gray shorts and a blue coat. His brown eyes are frowning as he pulls on a branch that is lodged in the bay. I hear the putter of diesel engines, hear the shutter clicks of his mom’s camera. I see the sand lodged between his toes, the abrasions where his shoes rub his skin. I smell the warm skin of a healthy boy and I see a green room, with a toybox and trains and a changing station where I have attended to a thousand dirty diapers. I hear a mother’s voice, the sound of music and feel the love in the home. I hear chickens clucking gently and I feel the cool sweat of an early morning run drying on my face as I make coffee.

There are towels there, too; lying on the sand, one orange, one brown, and the same girl that wore the flowered bikini so many years before, even more beautiful, with her hat and smile and impossibly worn shoes. I try to pick up the pictures, as they lie in the tangle of cords and IV’s on my chest, but they slip from my grasp. The nurse places them aside impatiently, intent on saving a life.

I try to explain it’s not worth saving. I can’t. The nurse has a job to do.

Seven days later, I sit on a park bench in a distant town, watching the sun set. I’m looking at what’s not here. I am curiously at peace, for the first time in many years. Saddened beyond belief, I am prone to quick and embarrassing tears. I think of hiking a distant trail, as I once did, but the walk across the park is tiring enough. I think of the little boy, and the girl in the hat. My days of ruin are done. I feel old and beaten. Broken. No anger, only sorrow. My tears mean little, and are embarrassing to those who witness them. My beloved mountains no longer sing their song to me. My ancestors are silent, awaiting my decision. Waves crash on some distant shore. I can hear them, but they no longer beckon.

I spread the two pictures in front of me. The girl. The little boy. My wife. My son. Oh, how I love them! I weep conscious of the stares, hoping I am not arrested for vagrancy but hardly caring. I am so far from home. I am so far from two I love most. I’m not sure how to get back. The sun is setting in the west, low now, as birds cry their way back to their nests. My truck sits nearby, the tired old engine tick-tocking as it cools. A plane wings its way overhead. My passport and the last of my cash and credit cards rest in the zipper of my old pack. I wait for a sign, silently praying, for the first time, in a long time, for guidance.

A little boy suddenly runs through the grass in front of me, intent on chasing a cat just weaseled from his grasp. He is tall for his age, and blonde. My heart suddenly lurches, as it always does whenever I catch sight of a mass of blonde curls. I know it is not my son, but that is sign enough for me. I place the pictures in my pocket and grab my keys, paying no heed to the direction of the setting sun. My way is east. Home. To those I love.

I need some new pictures.

A Waterman with a Poet’s Soul

She drove towards Annapolis from Gaithersburg, a fine late summer morning. Always quiet, she was more silent than normal. As I would find out over the years, she has a penchant for dolling out information on a need to know basis. I’m firmly convinced that she doubles as a secret agent of some sort. How else can you explain her ability to vanish at will, in black socks?

I can tell something is up, but only a few months into our relationship, back in late August of 2004, I already know better than to press the matter. I relax, secure in the knowledge that she will let me know when I need to do something. I suspect that we are going somewhere nice, as she had me deviate from my usual goofy attire of camo shorts and t-shirts to khaki’s and a shirt with buttons. I had no idea.

We parked in downtown Annapolis, already in a bit of an argument. She is walking at her normal clip, which is to say just under a jog. I preferred to meander, take my time, amble along. She, on the other hand, has things to do. More specifically, we have her parents to meet. I’m irritated and feel foolish. How can we already be meeting her parents? We just met. She informs me that we met three months ago, and it is time to meet her parents.

I resign myself to the fact, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, that I was going to do as she said. My biggest question then was, “Where are we meeting?” I’m a redneck mountain boy from the hollers and hills of Southwestern Virginia, and unless my sense of direction was badly off, which it never was, we were headed in the direction of the waterfront. She looked at me, cutting me off in mid-sentence. We waited on the docks while a small dinghy puttered up, firing more or less on all cylinders.

A tall man, slightly stooped, in glasses, a hat and dark sweatshirt greeted us warmly, shook my hand, and welcomed me aboard. Whatever nervous aspirations I’d had about meeting my future wife’s parents evaporated in that moment. I have never, not once, been made to feel more welcome. He ferried us out to their sailboat, and his wife, my future mother-in-law, fussed over our boarding, set out a plate of Chacuterie, poured me a glass of wine, and made me feel as if I were part of the family.

I didn’t know I was going to marry Laura Friedel, daughter of Gerald Friedel, at that moment. I do think that she knew she was going to marry me. I didn’t know how the future would turn out. I do know that on that day in Annapolis, I met one of the greatest men who ever lived.

An engineer with a poet’s soul, a waterman to his core, I loved him with all I had. He became a father to me, someone with who I shared everything. He was the one who stepped in and helped me when I needed it as an engineer. He was the one who took me out for my very first bowl of she crab soup. He was the first to call when my own father was sick. He taught me how to plane doorways, how to properly tie off a boat at dock, how to toss a crab trap. He taught me how to eat muskrat stew and regaled me with stories of beach camping when he was young.

He took me skeet shooting and hunting. He taught me the finer points of upland waterfowl. Always keen to the wind, a waterman always, he took me goose hunting for the first time in my life. At night he and I sat and chortled over action movies, watching Bad Boys II while Mama Sue Friedel pretended to be horrified over the antics.

How proud he was of his daughter! How nervous I was when I asked him if I could marry her! I asked him in person, and he, always the romantic, cried with me and told me he would be honored. He told me the most important thing in a marriage was to always love, and always remember the little things.

Our wedding day was bright and clear, and I have never seen a man happier than Mr. Friedel. He danced with is daughter, a shimmering vision in white and I cried, knowing that no matter what, she would always be the light of his life. He placed her hand in mine and admonished me to take care of her, no matter what. I promised him I would.

Over the years, he was my closest friend, my surrogate father. When I stumbled and fell, which was often, he was always there for me, never judging, never admonishing. He stood up for me, stuck by me – a man’s man. Highly educated and prominent in the community, he was always the first in line with a shovel when “real work” needed to be done. The last thing we did together was load old carpet and a door out of a warehouse in Cambridge. I reminded him that he had already paid someone to do it – he just grinned and reminded me that we should get to share in the fun.

He cast a big shadow, and like any son-in-law, I sometimes chafed under his wisdom and guidance. I was often jealous of my wife’s affection for him and their bond, so deep between that communication was not necessary between them. His shadow, though, was deep and humble. Not once, not one time, in the twelve years that I knew him, despite the situation, did he offer a cross word or a heated exchange. Despite my bull-headed stubbornness and bewildering aptitude for doing all the wrong things at exactly the wrong time, he was patient and kind. Nor was any piece of advice he ever offered wrong.

I’ve never seen a prouder Grandfather. Nolan Gray Matney, named after Mr. Friedel and I, loved his Papa more than anything. The highlight of his day was when Papa was coming – Papa meant boat rides, fishing trips, car rides scrapple, and most importantly, ice cream. Sometimes, when the light was just right, I would look at the two of them and be eerily surprised by the similarities. Nolan possesses his Papa’s mechanical aptitude, passion for the Bay, and uncanny judge of character. Everything good in my young son is inherited from his Papa.

Mr. Friedel, I love you. You were my role model, my mentor, my father, my sounding board, my conscious. You were careful with your words, loving, and every bit the man that I wish I were. You are the father of my wife, the Grandfather of my son. You had a greater impact on my life than every other person I met before you put together. Most of all, all the way until the end, you were my friend. It was a true honor.

A waterman with a poet’s soul. Your memory will never dim.

Ronald N. Matney, II