I am sitting here this morning, checking my email, the blinds open, the window open, great light and fresh air are pouring in my room and I caught myself zoning out and then focusing on a couple of the objects on my desk. Particularly, I have three “totems” sitting at the foot of my computer display; a small, hand-carved, wooden turtle that my nephew bought for me with his own money while we were in Hawaii one year; my father’s statue of liberty pocket watch that I have vowed to get working again; and a Zippo lighter that my friend, Tom, gave to me after an adventure gone wrong. All three of these things are special to me, but the story of the lighter is, well… it’s a bit crazy.
It was another steamy day during the Tuscaloosa, Alabama summer and my friend, Tom, and I decided to take a couple pills to get through the rest of the oppressive afternoon and on to the evening when a person can actually venture out of the air conditioning. I’m pretty sure it was hydrocodone. Tom knew his drugs inside and out and had taken just about everything under the sun. He had some harrowing stories about his drug use as well. Just to give you an idea, some of the stories included details like cinder blocks and plate glass windows and dark parking lots and needles and sordid other details.
Me? I’m more of an experientialist. Not experimentalist, experientialist. I have trouble dismissing things I haven’t tried and while a grad student in creative writing, poetry more specifically, I was trying… Well, I was being a poet, right?
Hydrocodone is actually a nice little drug because you get it from a doctor. If you’re in possession, you went to a doctor and he said these would be good for you. He’s checked you out and decided, with his years of schooling, that this pill or cough syrup (depending on your needs) would help, not hurt you. You don’t get that piece of a guarantee with drugs that are illegal. Now if you broke into a pharmacy and stole the drugs, you’re on your own there.
Tom and I were sitting in the living room of the house I shared with two other poets. I was sitting on the couch (the couch that belonged to a previous graduate who had just landed a book deal with Little Brown, so we sat on that couch a lot hoping the karma/luck/whatever would rub off) listening to the Discovery Channel and staring at the blur of the ceiling fan. Tom was sitting in another chair, fiddling with something, but I was pretty unaware.
One of my room mates came home about this time with another of our friends, Beth. Beth is a super bubbly, sporty girl who was always great to have around. Robbie, my roomie, a tall, lean, angular guy who either ran or played tennis with me, everyday and seemed to survive exclusively on red beans and rice. Great guy and a good poet. He wrote one of my favorite poems, “Loblolly Pine.” I’ll have to go check and see if he published it anywhere.
Beth and Robbie came in and suggested we go down to the river to swim. It was somewhere in the 90’s outside and the humidity so thick it felt like you were more drinking the air than breathing it. Tom and I had actually been down at the river last week and with refreshing memories of the spring-fed swimming hole that swirls at one of the bends in the river, we were on board. I’m not sure who drove. Usually on the drives to the river, I sat in the back seat and stared out the window, or, if my other room mate Anthony drove, I stared out his sun roof. We would make that drive often at night and the stars through the roof so completely covered the sky. This was a very rural drive and the light pollution was next to nothing.
We finally parked and started down the long trail through the woods to the river. It is a narrow, root-strewn, rocky trail that Anthony and I had recently started running down. It was like a very watered down version of parkour, running up lichened rock outcroppings, dodging roots, climbing and leaping off small hillocks. Another good thing about hydrocodone, it doesn’t really make me spazzy or lazy. I just always felt good, happy, like light was coming off me. I guess it’s an opiate… I took off running down the trail and Beth was quickly right behind me. She was a soccer player and had no problem keeping up. Robbie was coming up behind us. I think he was going a bit slower waiting for Tom.
Tom did not run. Tom, while he wasn’t fat, was a pretty husky guy. He was well aware of this fact, to a fault even. We didn’t care, but he was very self conscious about it. He probably wasn’t the most coordinated person I knew either. So he walked the path and I quickly lost sight of him and, after a while, Robbie as well. It was just Beth and I leaping through the green, green woods on a hot day, high, and headed to the cool water.
The trail is probably close to a mile long, and slowly loses altitude down to a small, algae-covered, wooden spillway. The river, below the spillway, continues, smoothing over large rocks, some so much that you can use them as a slide down to the small swimming hole. The hole is formed at a bend in the river where it came up against a large outcropping of rock and turned right. Some braver kids would jump off the small (20ft?) cliff that was formed from the river gouging at that outcropping over the years. To the left, the swimming hole is fed again by a small spring. The water that came in from this side was always incredibly cold, even on days like this. There were also chunks of clay along the bed of the stream. Beth and I headed straight for the spring, the cool water so bizarre as it ran into the river, like little, cool, clear tendrils wrapping around your legs until it mixed in with the warmer, browner water of the river.
I did notice, right when we got there how much lower the water had gotten since the week before. The hot weather and lack of rain really dropped the levels. But I hadn’t even gotten to the swimming hole proper, by the time Tom made it to the water. Beth and I were sitting in the spring, painting one another with clay. I remember one of Beth’s handprints on my stomach and I’m not sure what she was drawing on my back as I sat and squeezed clay between my fingers. Robbie had gotten there shortly after we did and was swimming around in the deeper water.
As I mentioned, Tom was self-conscious about his weight and never took his shirt off. It must have been hard hanging out with us hippies in the heat of Alabama. I rarely wore more than shorts and Berkenstocks during my three years there. Yes, I wore Berkenstocks. Whatever. They’re comfortable… and great for hacky-sack. Haha. To swim, Tom did need to take his shirt off. But to limit the amount of time any of us would see him shirtless, he whipped it off at the edge of the swimming hole and dove in in one fluid motion. He had done the same thing last week. This week, however, the water levels had dropped.
Beth and I were at the other end of where he dove in. Robbie was closer, out in the middle and Tom surfaced with a strange look on his face.
“What’s wrong,” Robbie said.
“I’m not sure,” Tom said and went under water and came back up as if to use the water to push his hair out of his eyes. When he came up again, the hair was out of his eyes, but now blood poured down from his head over his face.
“Get out of the water,” Robbie yelled at him as he swam to the shore and ran over to the edge where Tom was.
“Hand me my shirt,” Tom said with one hand on his head.
“Tom, get the hell out of the water,” Robbie was reaching for him as Beth and I splashed out of the spring and headed to where Robbie was squatting, his right arm stretching out over the surface of the water.
“Give me my shirt.” He wasn’t going to get out without it so Beth tossed it to him. I don’t even know if he put it on. I just remember Tom finally sitting on the edge and I was looking down at the huge gash at the top of his head, the skin folded under so I had a great view of his skull. We pushed Robbie’s t-shirt into the wound and tried to get him up and moving back up the trail. Of course, at this point it was getting dark. I was put in charge of running ahead and pulling the car down as close to the trailhead as I could while Beth stood on one side of Tom and Robbie the other and started walking him out.
I booked it through the darkening woods and when I got to the trailhead commenced a frantic search for the car keys. We would always leave our keys at the base of one tree or another, under some leaves so we didn’t have to jingle all the way down to the river. I looked at all the normal spots and now I remember it was Tom’s car. The keys were no where to be found. I saw the three of them had gotten to the trailhead. Tom had the keys and had forgotten that fact in the confusion, the drugs, the split head…
I grabbed the keys from him and we drove straight to the hospital. There were all the awful and frantic calls, the worst to Tom’s wife. Then waiting at the hospital until there is nothing left for you to do there and you go home. I went home at some point wrecked from the stress of that event and worried for my friend, guilty for running down that trail in the state we were in, forcing him to hurry along.
We did find out that the worst of the injuries wasn’t the gash on his head. He had actually chipped one of his vertebrae when he collided with the rocky bottom of the swimming hole. More guilt at moving him at all. One wrong move and that chip could have gone right into his spinal cord. Fun… And we also found out that Tom was not the best patient. If he could have just stayed still at the hospital (he said he just couldn’t) they wouldn’t have had to bolt one of those awful halos into his skull to immobilize him. But he couldn’t and they did. His halo really added to the sureality of another Alabama story involving a boat ride with a red-neck and avoiding the river police, but I’ll save that for another time.
It was a couple weeks later that Tom presented us with presents for helping him out of the woods. I’m not sure what Beth got, but Robbie and I got lighters, written on one side was “Elvis died today, but I didn’t…” (this all happened on the anniversary of Elvis’ death). On the other side, “Thanks for helping save my neck.”