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1. Freeze It So That It Doesn't Freeze / Tampa / December 80
Sharp palms scratched against a clear, cold sky and the fading yellow light baked away from the black outlines of the buildings like a beautiful gas. Out in the groves we could hear the sprinklers spitting as the farmers tried to cover the tangerines over with ice. Their goal was to coat the trees with just the proper amount of slush. If they could manage to keep the temperature right at 32 degrees Fahrenheit then they could preserve the endangered crop; freezing it so that it doesn't freeze. Like lowering some one's pulse rate so that their heart doesn't burst. But like every idea this was much better in theory than it was in practice and if they were off by only a couple of degrees, the trees wouldn't be able to hold the weight of the hardened ice and they'd split down the middle like a broken heart.
Joe Flannery and I could hear the jets of water slicing through the branches from where we were sitting near the entrance to the old campground. It was so cold that we could see our own breath. Once darkness fell the wind had turned crisp and we'd sought shelter underneath the overhang in front of the rec room. There wasn't very much in the way of recreation in there: just a red velvet topped pool table, a phooseball game, a couple of pinball machines: 'The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders' and I think perhaps 'Grease', plus a snack distributor and a pop dispenser.
For Joe and I it had been a long day of doing not much of anything. We were Irish Traveler kids which is tantamount to being a gypsy. Standard procedure for brats our age was to be pulled out of school early so that we could help our fathers at work. So Joe and I had both hit our last book the previous spring, even though we were barely preteens. But on days when our old men choose to end up at the Temple Terrace Tap instead of working, we didn't have much else to do aside from hanging around at the front of the campground.
That morning, Joe had came walking down the road telling me that John Lennon was dead; gunned down by some lunatic in New York City. We talked about it for a couple of minutes and then didn't think too much more of it. Actually, 40 seemed pretty old to me. I remember thinking that if I could make it to that age, I probably wouldn't feel cheated if I got gunned down by some lunatic.
Joe had only recently reemerged from the woods after an earlier incident; there were usually several younger children milling around the billiard tables begging for coins, which they would either pump into the pinball machines or use to buy snacks. I wondered what the hell Joe was doing when I saw him holding a quarter in between two Popsicle sticks, running a cheap, transparent BIC cigarette lighter along its silvery surface; heating the coin until it was an almost liquid white. When it was ready he dropped the molten money in between the pool table and the far one which bracketed the little impaled soccer players. He then twirled around as if he had dropped it by accident and was now searching for it. Many kids leaped up and dove after it, anxious to fund a bag of Frito's or play the silver ball. But Mick Whitney, a peculiar white haired kid whose I.Q. must have topped out somewhere in the high teens, was the fleetest of the bunch. He grabbed the simmering quarter and, for a fraction of a second, grinned in celebration. In the next instant, however, he screamed in agony and dropped the coin back onto the hard concrete floor where it spun around a few times before landing eagle up. I cannot say that there was a red raw depiction of George Washington branded onto his palm but the skin had bubbled to a blister as he ran crying back down the gravel road towards the trailers; Joe laughing after him for a few feet before veering back off and chortling his way up underneath the overhang.
Of course it wasn't long before Aunt Jane, Mick's mother, was marching up towards the rec room, her white haired offspring hanging from her shoulder like an organ grinder's monkey. By this time, however, Joe had retreated into the tropical woods, which were nestled in between the swimming pool and the laundromat. In his absence Aunt Jane turned her fury towards me as Joe's frequent accomplice. As she pelted me with heated accusations I patiently kept repeating that it wasn't me who had done her son wrong. Several of the smaller kids, when questioned, also said that it was not me but Joe who had done the depredation. Finally, frustrated, Aunt Jane gave up on the verbal assault and turned back down towards the trailers. Mick, who by now had cried himself into a stupor, which his M&M sized brain was never far from anyway, followed her while blankly holding the now bandaged hand close to his ribs. Once they were gone Joe reappeared. After the smaller kids had filled him on all the drama he'd missed he looked over at me and grinned conspiratorially.
After that dusk began to settle and soon the fading light lost its grip on the spikes of the palms as the temperature plummeted. Florida cold is like no other cold you've ever felt and we could feel the shocking sip of the frigid sea on the salt choked wind. The smaller children, chased by the chill, dispersed towards lit up trailer windows which held the promise of guffawing heat vents and steaming suppers. This left just Joe and I to sit outside on the painted logs.
Until we spied the outline of a serene figure slowly walking up the gravel road in the slanting light. After a few seconds we could make out the feminine shape of a woman or girl headed in our direction. Whoever it was they were wearing a white fur coat with the hood pulled over their face. When I saw the way that the celestial light refracted off of that face, I knew who it was. Although Joe was the one who sounded the name out.
"Jesus," he said, "I think it's Katie Rose."
I didn't answer but my heart began to beat faster. Now she was almost upon us and, although I averted my eyes, I still caught a glimpse of that long black hair escaping from the sides of the white hood like dark water cutting a trail through melting snow. She did not pause or even seem to notice us before gliding into the rec room.
Joe looked at me and raised his eyebrows. "From Russia with Love," he said as he got up. He was referring to her white hood. "I'm gonna go back to the back, try and get in one more football game with Owen and them before dark. You wanna go?" He asked.
"It's dark now." I answered.
"O.K.," he said, "I'll see ya back up here in a little while."
I nodded and Joe trotted off.
When he was out of sight I circled around to the side of the rec room and blended into the darkness near a cypress bush. From where I stood I could easily encompass the severe brightness which leaked from the windows and see directly inside to the pinball machines. Katie Rose had bucked the hood down and was now standing with her back to me. The streaming black hair had been set free and it flowed down past alabaster cheeks which were as smooth as white glass. The reflection of her translucent retinas glittered off of the glass scoreboard in a sort of kaleidoscope effect. Even though I knew, from staring at the photograph that I kept of her in my wallet, that her eyes were, in reality, as black as the bottom of a coal mine. There was no way that she could see me out here in the finished darkness, therefore, I felt peaceful and safe inside my toasty infatuation. Like a tropical swamp animal gazing from its muddy marsh at a hypnotic camp fire.
I was twelve and she was fifteen in 1980 and I couldn't really even think of her as my secret crush. For it was far too absurd to be labeled a secret, even from myself. But it did make me feel privileged just to stand still and watch her. And so I sat there as motionless as a Seminole, resolved to gaze at her for as long as I could remain hidden or she would keep playing. She didn't bump or grind against the machine like some promiscuous tramp. She stood straight up with dignity and poise as her slender fingers, the manicured nails painted peach, opulently operated the buttons. Like a flamingo standing in shallow water: stoic and still, surveying the area for predators with smarts and caution, or a sculpture made from salt which surely tasted like sugar.
And she may as well have been a statue as far as I was involved, for I would never have the courage to move her. I was too afraid of reproach to approach her and even if I had, she simply would have flown away like a slender and pink tropical bird sensing a reptile in the vicinity.
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