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Sunday Journal

Grasping at a fading flame

By GINNY RORBY
Published October 10, 2004

Sometimes, when my father was tight but not yet drunk, he would talk about the time he was a cowboy in Wyoming and slept on the ground at night. He'd spread his dusty bedroll near a campfire, find a flat stone for a pillow, and sleep there near the horses with the cattle lowing. He said the sissy way people camped these days with tents and cots and down sleeping bags was nothing like a real cowboy's nights under the stars. Of course, I begged him to take me camping like a cowboy.

We lived in Maitland on Lake Sybelia, not far from Sanlando Springs, where an ad on the radio said that, even in August, icy water bubbled up through breaches in the crust of the earth. Sanlando was where I wanted Daddy to take me camping.

That was fine with him, my father said. "Ask your mother."

"Quit talking about it, Ginny; you're not sleeping on the ground at Sanlando Springs," my mother said.

"We're not right on the ground, we'll have bedrolls."

"No."

Just because she was afraid of everything after dark, it wasn't fair not to let us go, but I offered concessions. "We could take the aluminum lounge chairs." When we got there, I thought, we would leave them leaning against the tree where we would pretend to tie the horses.

"No."

"Geez."

In April, Mama told me that she'd called Sanlando and camping was not permitted. Though I really didn't believe her, I gave up and asked if Daddy and I could camp on lounge chairs down at our lake. That way she could keep an eye on us.

"No. An alligator might drag you off," she said.

Then a crack opened up in her crust. "The only place you can camp is in the back yard."

Early in May, on the Friday night we planned to camp, Daddy came home with a headache from his new job as a salesman. He took a few aspirins, fixed a martini and went out onto the front porch to read the paper. I quietly went upstairs, stacked our pillows on the landing and rolled Daddy's sheets and blankets into a roll, then did the same to mine. I crept down to the kitchen for string and scissors. When Mama glanced around at me, I grinned, sheepishly, as if I were up to something. I wanted to get as much ready as I could before she remembered that tonight was the night we were sleeping out under the stars.

Before she had a chance to ask what I was doing, Daddy got up and came into the kitchen for another drink and more aspirin.

I backed out with the string and scissors behind my back and scooted up the stairs. I tied up the bedrolls like the cowboys used to, then crept down and slipped out the front door. I went around to the back door and put the bedrolls on top of the washing machine, then retraced my path back around and upstairs for the pillows. It was dark by the time I finished. Without turning on the garage light, I got the lounge chairs and set them up in the open, away from any trees, so we could see the stars.

Mama was still in the kitchen, so I was real quiet getting wood for our campfire from the pile stacked along the outside wall of the back porch. On the trip through with the pillows, I had nipped the Woman's World section of the paper. I crumpled sheets of it and put them in a sandy spot a couple of feet off the ends of the chairs, then arranged pieces of kindling. On top of those, I put three small logs so that we'd only have to strike a match when the time came.

When it was all done, I went up the back porch stairs. My parents were in the kitchen. Daddy sat at the little dinette with his elbows on the table, the heels of his hands pressed into his eye sockets. The bottle of aspirin was next to his drink.

My mother was washing dishes, but she kept glancing over her shoulder at him. I ducked down, went back out the screen door and sat down on the top step. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but their voices were dull and bitter.

Mama came out onto the back porch and threw a dish towel and her apron into the hamper. "What are these doing here?" she asked, referring to our bedrolls.

"We're camping tonight," I answered from the steps.

"Not tonight, Ginny. Your father has a headache."

"I'll be fine," Daddy said from the kitchen.

I heard the chair scrape back then tip over. Daddy came out onto the porch. I could tell he was drunk because he was squeezing his eyes shut over and over, like long, slow blinks.

"Tonight's the night," he said, squinting into the darkness. "Where is she?" he asked my mother.

"Here," I said, and waved my hand through the light from the kitchen.

"I think you should wait until tomorrow night," Mama said.

As if he hadn't heard her, Daddy said: "Did you get our bedrolls ready?" He steadied himself on the washer, his hand beside them.

"Right there," I said.

"Well, put the chairs somewhere in the open so we can build a little campfire."

"Not near the house," Mama said.

"I did all that already."

He smiled then turned and went back into the kitchen. A moment later I heard him shaking out more aspirin.

"How many is that?" Mama asked, disappearing through the door.

"I don't know. Six."

"It's a lot more than six," she sighed. "Please, eat your dinner now, Noel, so Ginny's not up all night."

"I'm not hungry yet."

Daddy never drank after he ate, so what he meant by he wasn't hungry yet was that he wasn't ready to quit drinking. I went in the house to see if it was time for The Shadow.

After The Shadow was over, I got the bedrolls and carried them out to the lawn chairs, then went to the kitchen to tell Daddy everything was ready.

It was dark except for the stove light. Daddy was alone at the table. He lifted his head slowly when I touched his shoulder. "About ready?" he asked.

"Did you eat?"

"I think so."

There was a pot on the stove with the burner on warm. Mama had given up and gone to bed. I took the bowl she'd left for him and ladled stew into it then carried it to the table. His head jerked up when I put it down in front of him.

"Is your headache gone?"

"Yep," he grinned.

"Eat this."

"Okeydokey," he said.

"I could use a little shot of that to wash this down," Daddy said, when I took the empty gin bottle off the table.

"It's empty." I held it up for him to see, then screwed the cap on and put it in the trash can under the sink.

I sat opposite him at the table. He blinked at me. "How 'bout a beer?"

"I'm too young to drink."

He focused on my face, blinked slowly then grinned. "Right you are." His head whipped around toward the icebox. "I think I'll have your beer," he said, gripping the edge of the table and leaning with his hand stretched toward the handle.

I jumped up before he fell and opened the door for him. There were no beers.

I turned the burner off under the stew and carried the pot to the icebox, then sat opposite him again. His head was down and his eyes were closed. "Daddy," I said and touched his hand, "maybe we should camp tomorrow night."

He lifted he head and smiled but didn't open his eyes right away." 'Night's the night," he mumbled, patting my hand.

I got Daddy onto the closest lounge chair. "I'm going to light the campfire now," I told him. He didn't answer, so I struck a match and held it to the corner of the newspaper.

Everything was dry. It caught and burned quickly. I sat on the end of my chair, watching Daddy and the fire for a while, then got up and shifted it around so I could lie down on my side and watch the flames search for cracks in the logs.

Daddy's legs were hanging off the sides of the lounge chair. When I heard him begin to snore softly, I got up and lifted them onto the chair one at a time.

For a bit, I watched the rise and fall of the glow of the coals as if they were alive and breathing. Between the house and the garage, I could see a sliver of the lake. I imagined Sanlando's underground stream, branching out like a fallen tree, flowing into my lake.

Two years later, my Girl Scout troop went to Sanlando Springs for a picnic. It was a still, hot June day and I raced another girl to the foot of a high slide, climbed madly to the top and launched my sweaty, skinny 11-year-old frame down toward the gin-clear surface. The cold water burned like fire. I came up screaming, swam to shore and scrambled out shivering.

During the hour we had to wait after lunch before going back in the water, I sat on a towel on the grassy slope above the spring. From there I could see the black, moss-rimmed hole, an empty-looking rupture out of which icy water bubbled to form a blister on the surface. When I first imagined Daddy and me camping on this shore, I remember thinking I would hold my breath, dive down and thrust my hand into the current.

Instead I found the opening dark and scary. I hadn't yet learned that holes are what is left when what filled them is gone. And sometimes people like my dad fall through the ones in their lives.

- Ginny Rorby, who was raised in Winter Park, lives in northern California and is co-director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference.

[Last modified October 7, 2004, 14:15:25]


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