Beauty Walks a Razor’s Edge
…My weariness amazes me
I am branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
and the ancient empty street’s
too dead for dreaming…
He is standing at the end of the dock with a cigarette hanging from his dry lips. Late July sun is rising, warming his bare feet on the planks of warped wood just inches above the water. His spirit belongs to older generations. An ancient part about him that sent him away from cities and busy people, never trying to chase or capture time. Maybe it was because of the rheumatoid arthritis; he had it since he was seven and now, at thirty-five, he’s found where he belongs, taking each day slow and steeped in chamomile, never knowing or planning for the next flare up.
He tinkers with cameras and foods and clay until they make sense in his hands, creating masterpieces in the long afternoons of tea and painkillers. On summer nights he sat outside his house, smoking in the dark, capturing fireflies with shutter modes, trying at it every time he noticed the camera buried somewhere on the counter.
He embodies that Beat-look: aged blue jeans worn thin at the knees and seat, torn and meticulously patched, fitted and worn white t-shirts, shaggy hair. He doesn’t go without his hat, an old fedora he had found at a thrift shop. He doesn’t give a damn about troubles or answers; he likes to watch the way things move and find their way. I once sat for two hours watching him creep up on a skunk to catch a shot. I got lost around him, the way he stole time with a naturally sedated articulation and spread it out like night, talking about politics or to whatever was turning in his hands at the moment. Taking a drag, taking a sip, and sauntering back and forth with the pace of an old man on Sundays.
I loved him. I envied him without jealousy. I loved how he drew me into his world like we were kids again behind that old red fence full of knots and spy holes, waiting for Spaghettios and blowing up frogs.
Mike has already had his hips, shoulders, ankles, and knees replaced. It comes and goes, worsening when he reached his twenties. Bouts in his youth were shorter and he remained somehow elastic and tireless. I couldn’t keep up with him. Now they stretch and tear, and he gets so tired. When he cried to me I knew there was something so deep in him that I could never understand.
…I was in another lifetime
one of toil and blood,
I came in from the wilderness
a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya…
shelter from the storm…”
“Amos, I feel so fucking stupid, that’s how I feel. But shit I don’t think I can do this again.” These are his words before another surgery. I silently cry too and tell him to find the Swimlot, and that Gram’s is watching over him. He always called while in Pre-Op.
I listened to him over the phone and watched him when we were together. I was amazed at how this wild boy had been defied by his own body. He was beautiful. Sometimes it got so bad he’d be in the hospital, worn away to his skeleton, his eyes protruding out of his hollow face. He was embarrassed when I saw him. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed, or turn doorknobs and steering wheels. But some days he could fish with me until the sky turned navy blue, and teach me again how to clean fish. His streaks of health, we learned, were becoming sparse, but when he rounded back out into a healthy body, he picked up where he left off, as best as he could.
When his wrists are swollen, he fills space with dreams. He wants a sailboat, and he’s taking me away, out in the ocean. He tells me this as he sculpts his clay and I sit among my notebooks and laptop, writing the story I can never finish. Sonny Boy Williamson, Ali Farka Toure, and Billie Holiday take turns breezing through my yellow curtains, out my kitchen windows and down my stairs. I make him tea and tell him about the cherry blossom trees in Japan. He talks about oceans and masts and ropes while creating a sculpture with his very own, private signature, a kind of howling in metaphor in the sinews of his figures.
“Amos, we’re gonna do it someday. Man, just picture it, out on that water, the clearest, blue-green water. Just watching the sea and breathing in that air. And we’ll do just this, like we always have.”
…Not a word was spoke between us,
there was little risk involved,
…Try imagining a place
that’s always safe and warm…
”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya
shelter from the storm…”
I think he started sculpting for two reasons: initially, he was left immobile and looking for things to help the time pass (he has also become a chef, he tailors his own clothes, plants gardens, fires his pottery), but I think he also came to a hard conclusion about his situation: Optimism is bullshit, you have to take what you get and appreciate it. He wracks himself blind with depression when his body gets so weak and he is so ready to take on the world. He can’t work. He’s on disability. He lost Lindsey, the girl he wanted to marry. He became addicted to his pain meds and put himself into detox. The American Arthritis Foundation did a full spread on him and his sculpting in their magazine.
With Mike, every moment was almost captured like a photo in my mind. In southern Wisconsin, he and his family lived in an old farmhouse atop one of many of the green rolling hills dotted by islands of looming trees. We were about fourteen then, watching the storms come in in panorama, lightning miles away, the sky purple and green and then that yellow Wizard of Oz-ish hue. We’d watch and then sneak back into the brush and smoke cigars.
I remember the time we raced to my house in another storm. He had about a block on me. I ran as fast as my short legs would let me, splashing through growing puddles in my PF Fliers. The seat of my cut-offs was slimy in mud. We’d gone hurdling down the muddy slopes of Suicide Hill and splashed into Bay City Crick. It was a jungle down there. The spray-painted remainders of ancient sewage canals were broken bridges that loomed over the stream and bury themselves into the wall of the ravine. I imagined hieroglyphics and secret codes whispering to us. When we crossed them, every step could have fallen away from us, so we silently made our way, testing each other for nerve. Then it started to pour. Rain showered down through the canopy of leaves and thunder cracked.
“Yes!” we screamed, and we made our way up the muddy path. I kept slipping and sliding, grabbing for vines and thorny branches to pull myself up. Mike was just ahead of me. When I busted out of the scratching brambles and woods, Mike had spiked it down the street, racing me to my house.
The rain stung my skin. My wet ponytail slapped me in the face, side to side, as I pounded the sidewalk. The storm put that yellow shadow on everything, making the grass and lilacs blot in electric color. I saw his skinny legs leap up to the front porch, and he waited for me, panting and soaked through his white t-shirt.
“This is friggin’ awesome Amos!” We paced on the porch.
“Should we go back?” My heart was pounding.
The door opened and my older sister, Nikki, appeared through the gray wires of the screen door. “You guys are gonna be in trouble. When dad gets home he’s gonna see you all wet and you’re gonna get it.” She disappeared. Inside I heard Cyndi Lauper singing the theme from The Goonies. We went in and sat down on the carpet, reeling with excitement. Thunder echoed down the avenue.
…Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there,
with silver bracelets on her wrists
and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully
and took my crown of thorns
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya
shelter from the storm…
In a flash of chrome our banana-seat bikes tore us down Highway 2 towards the lake. The entire small town of Ashland swelled on a hill, rolling down into the point of it, the moody waters of Lake Superior. Pedaling downhill we took a shortcut behind Frankie’s Pizza where a gravel trail wound through the dense green. The crickets and cicadas filled our ears against the rush of air from our speed. And then, abruptly, the trees canopying over us cleared and there it was, the small field of thistle and weeds that led toward the stone ledge that dropped four feet to the water below.
Mike and I had no need for words. Our lazy summer days were filled with them. He was my cousin and my best friend, and to be eleven without permission is, I think, the last enchantment of childhood. We dropped our bikes and ran toward the ledge, the milkweed overwhelming us with that bitter wild scent. The blue sky seemed to span around us, leaving me and Mike in this world. His hazel eyes flecked in the sun as we grinned at each other and held hands. This was ours. This was our place. This was our moment and we knew, somehow, that we’d never forget it.
Tank-tops, cut-off shorts, chucks and all, we swung our tanned our arms and counted out loud, looking only at each other, giddy.
I remember soaring through the fishy air, I remember the feel of his hand in mine, and then looking straight ahead at the same time we jumped into the cool, green water below, limitless.
This last August our families camped together in Delta, Wisconsin. Deep in the forest on an inlet of Spirit Lake, all was black in and outside of my cabin at four in the morning. I woke up and waited for Mike to meet me at the screen door. I heard a whippoorwill. Pine and birch and a smoky oak soaked the atmosphere. It was chilly. I gathered my fishing pole and gear and waited on the porch in the dark. I lit a cigarette that glowed the rails and hanging life jackets in a blinking red. I could smell the pond scum still dripping from the vests. The lake was barely visible, lit by the moon and stars in hazy electricity behind the black pillars of trees. In the distance, I heard his steps crunching on the gravel. I saw a faint red glow bobbing towards me. I smelled kerosene and coffee.
“Holy shit, Ame, you got up.” His grin was a casual half-smirk but his eyes were alive. We hadn’t been able to do something like this together in a long time.
“Coffee.” His gear and thermos clanked together and he picked up some of the bait.
“Where’d you get that?”
He held up an ancient lantern, “Some rummage sale a long time ago. Works great.”
He led the way into the darkness. I couldn’t remember the last time I was outside when the only light for miles around was from the stars. We whispered to each other but stayed mostly quiet. I took in the smells and sounds and dark shapes and fresh air as much as I took in Mike, limping ahead of me in a red glow.
The surface of Spirit Lake was covered in thick wisps of steam that lent to its name. A fog drifted around the upturned rowboats and shaky dock that had been there since we were kids. The fog pooled and spread and slipped around us. We slinked into the rowboat and the warm water bogged and recoiled against the hollow tin. I watched Mike’s silhouette against the backdrop of scattered diamonds, turning down the lantern, barefoot on the dock. He handed me the coffee and poles and untied us. We dipped in and over the water. The oars screeched and creaked. We went slow, listening to the oars and to the fish that flopped from the surface. I told him I’d row. The night before, at the fire, I saw his wrists and ankles were swollen ends to his skinny limbs.
“Nah, maybe later.” He breathed in deep. A loon landed close to our boat and we watched it. Its call echoed across the black lake. We sat and fished.
“Hey Amos, you know what?” The cigarette between his lips smoked into his eyes and he squinted and rowed a ways, leaning back. “Even with all the pain, all the….shit, all that I can’t do and will never do. All the shit you’ve been through. All the fucking hell, you know? I don’t think I’d change a damn thing about life.”
It was a common, out-of-nowhere comment, both of us always comfortable enough to speak our hearts and minds at random. But this time it stopped me. The water bogged against the side of the row boat. I could hear the bluegill slapping against each other in the krill.
My mind instantly went through a million conversations between us, both of us thinking we’d never make it, him physically, me mentally. All the tears and the begging for help from God, yet to each other, over the phone. The late-night conversations beginning with his cooking advice and my musical barrages, to astronomy and philosophy and what Gram’s death meant. I saw my best friend, hardened and beautiful, the wild, charming blond boy who forever steals my heart. He hadn’t broken, nothing was taken from him. He had grown into a man in such a short time, and I still believe there is nothing he can’t do. And he made me feel, in a large moment of my life, brave and strong, like a person of substance. Like him.
He looked over at me, one eye still squinting in the smoke. He grinned, knowing I felt the gravity of this, too. He said, “I know you know what I mean. Man, I love ya, Amos.” He brought up the oars, I dropped anchor, and we fished until well past dawn.
…I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge
someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock
to when God and him were born
“Come in,” he said, “I’ll give ya
shelter from the storm…”
Amy Sprague is a Wisconsin poet and essayist living on Lake Superior (yes, right by the Ice Caves). She is a single mother working on a memoir and she loves the blues. After a serious illness, she is preparing to return to Northland College where she hopes to earn degrees in Psychology and Writing so she may start an art therapy trauma writing program in her community for sufferers of PTSD. On Twitter: @amyjosprague