Rough spots 

Clinging to treetops, feasting on pomegranates

Daniel's aunt Erma had an oil well right outside her house. The kind that was always pumping, "so she always had a lot of money." He was telling me about her the other day, his memory having been stirred by the sale on pomegranates at the Buford Highway Farmer's Market.

"Is this the same aunt who had a life-sized replica of Venus de Milo that lit up in her living room?" I asked. I liked that aunt, she always wore wigs, and we are not talking just any wigs. We are talking the kind that look like a yellow cotton farm exploded on her head, with a ribbon in the middle.

No, this was a different aunt altogether. In fact, Aunt Erma was not even really an aunt, but his mother's cousin. She was like an aunt, though, a benevolent old aunt who collected husbands like cards in a poker game and kept her diamonds in the freezer but didn't bother to keep it a secret, either, pulling them out at every chance and joking about her "ice box." The diamonds might not have been all that valuable, anyway, as one of her husbands had mined most of them himself, right outside the house, and they were big and yellow and mounted garishly.

And Daniel remembers the pomegranates. She had a pomegranate tree in her back yard, and Daniel and his brother Darrel would always head straight for the ripened fruit fallen at the trunk, and that is where I like to envision them both: barefoot at the base of a tree, feasting on pomegranates with their aunt Erma's ugly oil well pumping overhead and unearthed diamonds buried beneath.

It must be memories like this that pull you through. For example, Daniel works teaching art at a children's mental hospital. He doesn't talk about it much, except to say he is seriously waiting for the day he might find diamonds in his own yard. Or oil. Or something. I don't know. Neither of us do. All I know is that when Daniel sees pomegranates on sale at the Buford Highway Farmer's Market, he is saved, for a moment or so, from a rough spot; from the painful longing of something outside his reach right now. He is transported from the faces of the kids he hopes he is helping but can't say for certain he is, to that place under a tree in the Texas sun, laughing and eating pomegranates until the juice ran down his arms in a web of red streaks.

I have a memory like that. It's a glimpse back to my brief period as a pyromaniac when I lived in Melbourne Beach, Fla., while my mother worked at NASA on the last Apollo moon launch. At the time, it seemed that every third block or so there were acres of untended land woven through the neighborhoods, rife with pointy plants, sand spurs and pine trees. My friends and I would burrow ourselves deep within those places, certain we were safe from interference from the outside world, and we were probably right. Not even homeless people wandered into those rough spots, or not for long, anyway.

I was 9 and smoking half a pack a day. Not only that, I was providing my friends with cigarettes as well, because my parents' own habit was so vociferous and they kept such a surplus supply of Marlboros that they never noticed a pack or two missing each morning.

So at first, we foraged into the rough spots so we could smoke cigarettes undetected, but we were 9, so it was just a matter of time before we turned our attention from burning our lungs to burning the wild growth around us. We lit fires like tribal warriors but they never got out of hand, probably because it rains every five minutes in Florida.

The rain, now that would get out of hand. I remember hanging out in one of the rough spots with my friends when all of a sudden the sky turned gray and began to boil, I tell you, and the wind was so stiff we had to hang onto the trunks of pine trees. High up in the air, above everything else, the tips of the trees were whipping around like kelp at the bottom of an active ocean bed.

I wish I could say it was my idea to climb to those tips, but the truth is that I don't know who thought of it. It's possible it could have been a collective stroke of genius, because here we were, a bunch of chain-smoking 9-year-olds, so it's obvious life held no value for us. But whatever the case, here is what happened: Soon we were each clinging to the tips of our own pine trees and sailing through the air like trapeze artists, laughing so hard we could barely keep our grip.

Jesus God, looking back I'm surprised I survived. But somehow I was saved, and I'm glad I was, because to this day, when I reach a rough spot in my life, I look back on that moment and I am saved again, by the vision of kids clinging to the tips of trees that had come alive in the wind. Kids laughing in the rain and soaring through the storm.

hollis.Gillespie@creativeloafing.com


Daniel Troppy's website, www.connectingart.org, showcases artwork by his students. Proceeds benefit artists in need of mental treatment.

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