THROWN a short story by SG Young
Your wheel in motion, everything can begin. The clay is a deep red brown, and it is a part of the earth. It’s moist and heavy in your hands and in your fingers. It is cool or cold even. It wants nothing but to remain clay. It wants to sit still and be heavy and moist in your hands. It wants to stay. It wants to be earth.
On your wheel the clay sits heavy and must be centered before anything else can happen. Centering on a wheel is a task like Zen, like meditation, like hard work. The potter centers clay by using her hands, arms, shoulders, and body to push. Push too far and she’ll have to start over. Centering clay is like raising children, like cooking meals, like being a human being.
The wheel is a spinning disc like the earth, like the sun in the sky, or like the moon. It just spins. It doesn’t do any work for you, yet it makes all the work possible. The spinning of the wheel is like children, like constant motion, like life. All of life. All of love. All of everything—it’s all spinning, really.
The clay starts on the wheel plopped heavily near the middle, spinning in some wayward wobble, some wacky motion defiantly off center, a mocking motion, a playground motion, way-out, saying to its potter, You’re not the boss of me. But she must be the boss, she must push and then shape, knowing a little bit about what it will look like, eventually what it may look like, what it could look like, what maybe it might look like if she could get her hands going just right. I told you, it’s like raising children. You never really know what’s going to happen.
These potters have raised children. They are women who’ve lived and loved. They’ve been scared before, they’ve been worried. They know what it is to watch a child and say, There he is. I wonder what he’s going to do next. They’ve seen children climb trees, fall to the earth and break both wrists. Both, at once. The greenstick child fracture that heals inside of a cast helping the bone come out stronger than before the break.
They’ve seen children making a mistake and trying to get out of it. The way children do. By crying. Or arguing. Or promising. The clay is a little bit like that, but I’m telling you it won’t do anything for you until you can get it centered.
Sienna has some pieces for sale that were thrown last year. One hangs in the little shop adjacent to the studio. She shaped it. Trimmed it. Let it dry leather hard. Made some small holes. Fired it bisque. Applied glazes, two colors. Gave it the finished firing and looked at it to see how it’s turned out. Then she fashioned the finished piece, knotting a rough cotton cord through the holes and hanging everything, just so. It represents a few dollars worth of clay, liquid glaze, and cord. It represents a few hours of skill and care and decisions all tempered by working at Jock’s studio these past few years.
It could hang on your wall or on your deck saying something to each viewer. When guests come over they could say, “Did you make this?” Or, “What is this?” Or, “What is this supposed to be?”
And Sienna could say, “It’s supposed to be just what it is. A piece of earth with cord and colors, hanging just so.”
“Does it do anything?”
“What would you want it to do?”
“No, I mean is it for something?”
“Yes, it’s for something. It’s for looking at and asking questions.”
Her guest sips from a bottle of Corona, no lime, and looks out across the grass. But Sienna thinks, What is the grass for? What are you for? Are you supposed to be doing something? Because I just see you hanging out. Of course she doesn’t say this. She just thinks it.
None of that really happened. I’m just saying, the piece is there in the shop, and she has it for sale. Sienna priced it at $35.00, because she really wants it to sell. She kind of needs the money.
Jock generally arrives first, after all it’s his studio. He and Sienna have an easy rhythm to start the day. One kiln gets unloaded. Sienna looks at each piece as she removes it from its place in the kiln to student shelving, keeping things organized. Jock can’t run a studio that’s not organized. She knows which pieces have fired well. She knows which women might frown when they finally see their piece, after the firing has transformed it. She’s seen students cry. Sienna’s job is to explain what happened, how it came out like this, just so.
Many pieces come out well, and Sienna knows the potters will be happy. She knows each one’s smile. But sometimes things come out and Sienna says Uh-oh. She doesn’t say this out loud. She just thinks it. Things can get bumped, or they weaken in the heat. Maybe a base wasn’t quite level. Or a hidden air bubble exploded. Sometimes something just cracks. Sienna explains that when you want a set of four cups with handles, you always make five cups with handles, or six even. Just in case.
When the shelves are ready and the kiln empty Sienna prepares anything needed for that day. Someone’s asked for a certain glaze, and it needs mixing. Each student needs clay for that day. She knows who’s throwing and who’s doing hand built today, so she uses a roller to produce some flat sheets of moist clay, just the right texture to work easily, thin but not too thin, and even all the way round with neat squared up edges that look like a pro did them. When new students see clay prepared like this they tend to think that clay looks like that, just naturally looks like that. No, clay doesn’t look like that until it’s prepped for you, prepped just so.
Jock comes in. “How was the kiln?”
“Nice. Very nice. Brenda’s going to be happy. Her pitcher’s perfect. Abbie has a little glitch on one bowl, but it’s the small one so she’ll just redo that one today. Her other two are fine. And Claire has one good, one bad. I think she’ll be okay. She’s doing hand built today anyway.”
“Okay, great.” Jock is already looking over the student work as it sits on the shelf, selecting two, three, four pieces to start with that day. Jock starts with his students looking at pieces together. He just puts them out on the table, and they all talk. Student pieces. Everyone learns from one another, both from things gone well and from things that happened to go the other way for some reason. He helps analyze a bit, and he wants them to see how everything came out, and why.
Most potters will fire twice, once bisque and once glazed. Glaze can be dramatic, because you see it first. Like the skin or hair of a beautiful girl, it’s something you can’t help notice. The piece underneath can be quite different. It can take two weeks to see a finished piece, and remembering back two weeks ago to what the student originally wanted and tried to do, this can be a challenge, but Jock is good at remembering each student, where she’s at and maybe what went wrong. The hardest part for Jock’s teaching is exercising judgment about which student is at which stage, who needs to be told No, that’s fine, I would fire it like that. And which gets told, Here’s what I’d do, and then he steps in and shows her some easy trick that she wishes she already knew.
Of course, turns out it isn’t an easy trick—it only looks easy because Jock’s been doing it just this way for sixty years. I’m not exaggerating. Jock’s been throwing since high school, since muscle cars, since Harleys, since the Beatles and the Stones, since black-and-white television.
Jock came down a long time ago, and he came for the same reason a lot of guys come to South Florida, which is that he felt he might fit in. It’s partly the sunshine and the brightness, but he felt he had a fresh start. In South Florida you can get that feeling just about every single day—the same essence people up north feel occasionally on a bright spring morning, or on a day with beautiful summer fresh air, or even on one of those days when a soft snow has fallen and hushed everything, making everything say, It’s all new today and everything is ready for you. You can get that feeling most days in South Florida. It’s partly the relentless sunshine, partly the water if you like water, partly the birds. There are more species of birds in Florida than in the rest of the US all combined. And you can’t help look at them, because you see them everywhere and you hear them everywhere. If you’re feeling like you’re not fitting in somewhere up north, I’d say try Florida, and by Florida I mean South Florida. Especially, if you happen to like birds.
By the way, Jock’s happily married and he has kids, daughters with grandchildren up north. By not fitting in, I didn’t mean what you were probably thinking. There are more ways than that for guys to not fit in. One way is to care about things. Sometimes it’s hard to fit in if you care about something, because caring gets in the way of other things. It gets in the way of being cruel or being relentless or being able to go vicious, vicious in a business sense where you rake someone over because it might make you more money. If you value, and I mean value deeply, what some call the bottom line it’s easier to fit in. Then again, there’s South Florida where the bottom line might have more to do with a bikini. Most days can be boat days, that says something right there. Most days can be bike days by which I mean your Harley. Most days can be golf days if you go in for that sort of thing. Jock was never a big golf guy, but he liked a convertible when he could get one. Most days can be top-down days, if you like to roll like that.
To be honest, nobody knows exactly when Jock came to Florida to stay, but they know he came from Rhode Island, because he talks about it. And you just know that there are ways to fit in, up in Rhode Island that a guy like Jock just isn’t going to get into. Ever. So eventually you figure that out, and then you get your courage together and sell everything and bury it all into something new. Back then people were calling it a lifestyle. You open the little shop and studio that you’ve been thinking about since you were a teen.
That age, Jock already loved the feel of clay in his fingers, and what he could do when he worked it. Jock can do a lot of things with five pounds of clay. For a time he worked a production job, which means he produced quite a number of the exact same piece over and over. I mean, over and over and over. It can be a way of serving an apprenticeship of sorts. Pottery isn’t like one of the trades, and nobody’s going to hand you a sheet of paper with your name in calligraphy. At some point you just have to know that you’re ready to go into something on your own, and he’d been thinking about having a little shop with a studio since he was a teen. That, and the draft.
You might be thinking I may have meant a cool breeze? Here’s what you do: go to a little place in South Florida called Punta Gorda, and they have there a memorial—it’s a one-half-size replica of the real one in DC. Take a look at it. Dale, Chester, Maurice, Alfons, Frederick. Yeah, I was a little surprised, but those are the actual five first names inscribed. 1959. You could go to DC if you want, if it’s closer. You can go anywhere you want. Those names won’t change. The next five are Ralph, Glenn, Leslie, Edgar, Oscar. I was surprised too. I’d thought there’d be more Johns or Richards or Thomases. Maybe that tells you something. No idea, by the way, if Leslie was a guy or a woman—they don’t indicate that, they just put up the names, but you can look them up if you want.
The point I’m trying to make is that when Jock was that age nobody knew those names except the families involved, but everybody knew why they died. They died because if you’re not careful somebody’s going to have you fit in by joining up. This was called the draft. By law you registered—guys had to register. They knew your birthday. All the birthdays, every day of the year, got thrown together into a giant drum and turned. Yeah, it was a lottery, but not a real good one. If your birthday came out first you knew you were fucked. If your birthday didn’t come out until the end you knew you were safe. Of course, most everybody’s birthdays came out somewhere in between, and then you didn’t know anything. But you could guess. The government had projections based on manpower needs, though it could all change fast. This was all done the year you turned nineteen.
Nineteen. I’m not making this up. It was the birthday you were turning nineteen, and you’d get thrown into something by your own government that could end your life, or turn you into someone you never wanted to be.
Here’s what the studio looks like: you go up Tyler until you cross the tracks, and there’s a white building on your left with diagonal parking all along. It’s next to an auto shop, but you won’t see the auto shop until you start turning in, as it’s kind of tucked back.
Jock’s place is called StonesThrow Pottery on the sign, and it looks like several buildings but all connected. One door, the last one as you drive up, is the studio entrance where students work. The other doors are private studio spaces for people who aren’t actually students anymore, so they don’t pay for classes they just pay for space and materials. Most of those people have been working in clay several years at least, and of course they’re pretty good. But they still appreciate having Jock on premises for maybe the odd question or two, or just to look at their work and tell them what he thinks. And they all have stuff for sale. If you’re in town and you want to buy handmade pieces, maybe for a gift back home or for your new retirement place, you can just stop in and look at everything. It’s open to the public. Sienna’s work is there.
On the other hand it isn’t like an actual store, more like an art studio, so it’s actually pretty cool if you like that sort of thing. Which in South Florida turns out a lot of people do. Students arrive and park. They have to be ready to work. Nobody just hangs out. You have to be ready to get a little messy too. Your clothes or your hair maybe. You’ll come out with clay on your face if you’re not careful, because you were concentrating and you had an itch or something. There’s a lot of good-natured workshop-type banter, and people get to know each other, so nobody really cares.
Claire is doing hand-built today. That just means she isn’t going to use a wheel at all, just work with the clay directly with her hands or tools. She’s making her owls today.
Claire volunteers one shift per week at the Wildlife Center, which almost looks like a little zoo. What they do is care for wild animals, birds mostly but turtles and things too, that people have found injured or in need of assistance. In South Florida this is a thing that happens. An egret or a pelican or an owl or an osprey gets brought in. They see the vet, and they probably need care for a while. Why do people bring them in? If you don’t know what those birds look like you might want to look them up, but I’m going to just say they’re beautiful.
There’s a guy volunteers at the Wildlife Center that has his own owl from New York, not the city just the state. When he comes to Florida every winter he brings the owl with him, and the owl has her own flight cage at his house to keep her safe, because she’s blind. An owl hunts by sight, so a blind owl needs a bit of care. I’m telling you this bird is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. She actually sits on this guy’s shoulder and meets the public. Over two feet tall with a wingspread close to five if she’ll open them all the way, and the coloration in her feathers is stunning. You can’t tell she’s blind, the eyes just don’t work, like cataracts or something.
Claire hasn’t actually held this bird, but she’d like to, except the talons are over three inches long and look like daggers. And the beak could open cans of tuna. Claire’s seen her a lot of times and knows her name, because this owl’s a sort of animal ambassador that meets the public and generates interest in the Wildlife Center, which runs strictly on donations.
When Claire volunteers she works at the small gift shop, which she’s good at because she offers a rare combination—people skills that make you glad you came in, but she also turns in the cash drawer balanced at the end of her shift. Before retiring Claire taught kindergarten for many years, and she likes the children that come into the Wildlife Center. As I say it’s like a little zoo, but it’s all free to visit except for donations, so a lot of people buy something at the gift shop before leaving.
Today Claire’s making owls, hand-built, for the gift shop. She designed them herself shaped from flat clay and incised with owl markings like a baby owl would have, and then painted and glazed just so. When she brought some in they sold so quickly that she thought they’d been lost or broken or something, because they were all gone in one week, the next time she came in. I told her that they’d sold because they’re wonderful, handmade, baby-owl pottery, but she didn’t believe it until she looked them up herself in the computer when the shop was empty. They sold for $14.00 each. Claire didn’t price them, that’s up to the gift shop to do.
Abbie is at Jock’s today too. She’s throwing on the wheel. Abbie’s in South Florida from Canada, from Nova Scotia, a small city where she lives with her husband. You’d think they were married a long time, but she worked an entire career in the diplomatic service, posted to different places all over the world, wherever Canada needed her. She could run a diplomatic office anywhere in the world. Twice she was in Switzerland for a total of over ten years, but also South America, several countries, and in Southeast Asia a couple of times. She speaks a few languages and is totally fluent in French and English. A life like that was not conducive to being married, but after retiring she reconnected with someone she’d known quite early in life, and they married in their sixties. They’re brilliantly happy, the type of happy that you can just see. Retired together, they spend about half of the year in Florida. You can probably guess which half if you know anything about Nova Scotia, but Canada is strict about residency and they’ll jeopardize their health coverage if they aren’t in country six months and a day, so like most Canadians in Florida they don’t cut it too close. You don’t want to go through all that paperwork and expense just because your vehicle needed a mechanic in Maine.
Brenda is in studio today too, but she lives full-time in Florida. In fact, she has a studio and kiln at her own house, but she still comes to Jock’s to work part of the year. Brenda learns something new whenever she’s around Jock’s place, and the camaraderie is something you don’t get working alone at home. Brenda is sort of in-between on the business side of things, because her pieces sell enough that she pays for all of her pottery expenses and classes through her income, plus she generates a bit of spending money, but you wouldn’t say she’s making a living at it.
Not like Sienna. Sienna’s a pro potter. If you don’t count her waitressing.
Jock’s in form today. Yeah, it’s his place and he can be a little gruff. “Hey, let’s get everybody over here and get started. Time’s a-wasting.”
Sienna steps back a bit so Claire and Abbie and Brenda can get a good look at today’s pieces set on a table for all to view. Every day’s like a test.
“Let’s take a solid look at these glazes today. All four of these are glazed, right? But they’re all different. We’ve talked about dipping and brushing glazes. What can you tell by looking at these?”
Abbie volunteers, “My piece is dipped twice. I did the dark glaze over the lighter.”
Jock lifts the piece in his hands, pointing. “It works, right? It’s a contrast, you’ve got two colors that work together quite well. You might have gone a little shallower on that second dip, but I like it. If you’re going two colors you want a major and a minor effect usually. If they come out too even it can look like they were supposed to be equal but didn’t make it. But these work quite well together. Might have gone maybe a shade more shallow but it works fine. That’s a nice piece.”
Claire says, “Okay, mine I probably went too equal? But it was supposed to be sand and shore and I really wanted the balance. That blue came out darker than I was hoping, you know, for water. I really like the sand color though, that’s perfect.”
“Okay, great, and I want everyone to notice that Claire’s incised here. She’s got the baby sea turtles heading for the water, and when you do that you notice the glaze works into the clay and it changes the effect. Everybody take a look at that. Sometimes you can manipulate that, but a lot of times you just take what you get. This worked real well here.”
Jock held forth like this from his throne at center court, everybody seeing and learning about the interaction of hand and eye that becomes completed pottery. The texture and weight of a piece can only be discerned by hand, so he suggested to be sure to touch and hold all four of the day’s examples, not just look at them. Everyone’s careful with people’s creations, and they’re looking forward to bringing them home at day’s end. Sienna waited until Jock was done and wrapped up each piece into some newspaper to protect from bumps. It’s important at the studio that students take pieces home.
The potters then got to work, each delving into what she’d decided for the day. Claire wanted a little help on the baby owls, trying to get a uniform size. She knew to ask Sienna who’d be fine, whereas Jock would likely be unhappy with a student effort to produce four exact same pieces. Claire was happy to let Jock help the others today.
The time went quickly as always, everyone in their flow until suddenly it’s time to start cleaning up. Jock was adamant every day that things get cleaned up and class end on time with the studio prepped for another lesson group for the afternoon. In the corner by the door someone stood, someone nobody recognized. Long hair with colors in it. Sienna ambled over. “Are you here for a class?”
“Yeah, I just wanted to find out. Can I sign up? Or is there a process or something?” She glanced over at each person in turn, three ladies that looked a bit old to her, but that’s Florida, right? She was quick with an expressive face and manner, her wrists and hands flying left and right at, “process or something.”
Sienna said, “Yeah, we can sign you up. Only takes two minutes. What time do you have in mind? This session’s over, but this group meets together again Wednesday and there’s space for one more.”
“Really? That would be sooo great!” Her eyes flashed and darted happily to Sienna’s, along with a smile that could carry a room. Her hair, blond but highlighted with pink, floated. She moved, swaying like a dancer, taking in the entire studio. “Do I need things?”
“Yeah, just the basic student set. It’s just twelve dollars, and then some clay. You pay for your own clay, and then for the class. You’ll like it. Have you done pottery before anywhere?”
“Not really. Just in high school. But I liked it, so your studio’s right here . . .”
“Sure. Let’s get your name.”
“Gabriella. Gabbie. Or Gabriella.”
“Mm-hmm, can you spell that?”
Two days later Gabriella was hard at work at her own table, Claire on one side and Abbie from Canada on the other. Abbie didn’t have children though her husband did which means she now has a half-dozen grandchildren. Claire has three sons, all grown men now, working. One’s a teacher up north, married. Her youngest, also married, is in Colorado. Just past thirty he’s already retired from a ten-year career as a pro athlete, now in grad school. Mathematics. Claire’s middle son, not married, builds high-end houses, all custom, in Chicago near the lakefront. The sort of residence that gets furnished with dining chairs that cost $16,000. Apiece. Just for the dining room. A woman doing the interiors will recommend ceramic pieces that go for hundreds of dollars. For a plain white bowl, hand-thrown. Gabriella hums while she works.
“So, where are you from?” Claire asks.
She chuckles. “You name it, I’m from there. Easier to tell you where I haven’t lived. I’ve never lived in Florida. My mom’s here. She’s thrown here, that’s how I know about it. I love art. Art and music. I really want to sing. In fact, I’m singing tonight. You should all come and hear me!”
“Where are you singing? Are you performing?”
“Not sure we should call it performing—there’s just a band that plays together at the park each week, at a gazebo, in the evening. I talked to them, and they said I should come this week and be ready. They’ll let me sing if I do something that they know. But they know a lot of songs, all kinds of country, rock hits, oldies, blues even. So you can pick almost anything, I think.”
“Is that at Duckcrest, by the water?”
“Yeah-yeah-yeah, they use that gazebo with the seating and a lot of people bring their own chairs and sit and listen. It’s very cool, they’re really good. A lot of old people and cute couples come and listen. Everything’s free, so . . . “
“What are you singing?”
“I have two. One’s Randy Travis, Forever and Ever. I love that, it’s for my grandma really. She passed two years ago, but we used to sing that sometimes. She could sing it. I miss her. And also I’m doing, I think it’s Righteous Brothers, not sure. The one that goes, (she sings) “I need your love, I need your love, Godspeed your love, t o-o-o-o-o-o meeeeee . . . Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea, to the open arms of the sea . . .”
“Oh, yeah, from Ghost. The movie!”
“Ghost. You know, Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, he’s dead. Whoopi Goldberg’s in it?”
“And that pottery scene!” Brenda interjects.
“There’s a pottery scene?”
“Um-hmm, probably best pottery scene ever. They’re throwing with the clay. She’s throwing, but he’s a ghost, and his hands are all over hers . . .”
Gabriella looks happy, not confused. “Okay, I guess I’ll have to see it.”
Brenda’s not quite ready to believe this. “You’ve never seen Ghost? It’s pretty famous.”
“I don’t think so. I’ll ask my Mom. Probably, I saw it when I was little. We saw a lot of stuff that I can’t remember at all. You know, because you’re little. Can’t remember everything.”
“So, why did you pick that song”?
“For my fiancé. We’re getting back together. I think we’re getting back together. I’m going to see him next week. He’s coming to Florida.”
“He’s coming to see you?”
“Mm-hmm, yes he is, he’s coming to see me. We were in a little rocky spell, but he loves me. We’ve loved each other a long time. When we got together the first time, this was about seven years ago and we fell SO hard. It was one of those things where you don’t really have any idea, and then just all of a sudden . . .”
“That’s really kind of a hard song, isn’t it? It’s got those high parts . . .”
“Not for me. I’m an alto.”
“So, you’ve been singing for a long time?”
“I ne-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eed your love. See?”
“Yeah, that’s great. And what was the other one?”
“Oh. Randy Travis? That’s just for fun. I mean it’s for my grandma, and I hope I don’t tear up. It’s hard to sing it through if you get emotional, because we used to sing that together. You know, you should all come! It’s tonight. It’ll be fun. Really, fun. And it’s free.”
“Well, that depends. They have other people that sing too, and you don’t really know exactly who’s going to show or anything, but they said I should come this week, and I told them that I really want sunset. I want to do my songs at sunset. So, what time is that? I don’t really know.”
So. That evening we went to Duckcrest, Claire and me. Duckcrest is like a linear park, set all along the waterfront, sailboat masts in the background, and it offers two different covered structures, one a gazebo and the larger one more of a picnic table shelter. They’re both open on the sides and are used as impromptu live music venues by a group of local talent mostly known as the Guitar Army. The Guitar Army, I believe, used to consist mostly of veterans. They all bring their own instruments, and they just get together, Thursday evenings. It’s become a popular spot to bring a chair, and a few people even have a picnic supper, quietly shared with maybe a glass of wine. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to hear, but they’re pretty good musicians, and you can wander from the shelter and up to the gazebo to listen as well. It’s not really organized for the audience—it’s not a concert venue, basically a jam session.
If you like South Florida you’d love it.
Claire had told me about Gabriella’s singing. Claire felt like someone should go, someone should show up, because Gabbie really wants someone to show up from pottery. Moral support. Plus, she wants someone to video her performance so she has it.
The thing was, when we got to Duckcrest it wasn’t that easy to find Gabriella. I’d never met her, and Claire was on the phone, talking to one son back home. He was having a hard time with his dog who’d developed an eye infection that seemed to be getting serious—she was starting to have systemic effects and actually losing coordination, but the vet was just treating it with eyedrops. This is our son runs a construction site all day, and wouldn’t you know it, his dog would get sick just when work’s the busiest. Six million dollar site, and the family waiting two years for it to finish. Next week appliances arrive for install, so they can finally move in, forty-five appliances for one four-story house. The thing is, the dog, a purebred Weimaraner, is really pretty much our dog too, because when we’re home we dog-sit her on a very regular basis. She’s only six, bright and active, very social, extremely intelligent and very communicative. We’re careful not to accidentally slip words like walk, ball, leash, and car into casual conversation. But now she was just lying down, and it was painful for her to even lift her head.
Claire was on her phone, and at the same time trying to eye the small crowd, looking for Gabbie, wondering how she might be dressed, and worrying about the dog. I only knew to look for someone college-age, pretty, with colors in her hair. Sounds vague, but at this particular venue almost everyone is over seventy years old, so a girl like Gabbie stands out.
We wandered both shelters, and Claire finally pointed her out, so I meandered that direction. “Are you Gabriella? I’m with Claire from pottery.” I was pointing toward her still on her phone. “We came to hear you sing.”
“Yeah. Oh, that’s so great, thank-you, is that her, on the phone?”
“Yeah, she spotted you, but she’s on a call. Our dog is sick, back home, she’s talking to our son.”
“Yeah, I didn’t recognize her because she doesn’t have her mask on. At pottery she keeps her mask on, so I wasn’t sure.”
“So, you’re singing—do you know when?”
“Not sure yet. I wanted sunset, and they said that might work out. I have two songs, but I think I’m down to one. They have some other people too. But I really wanted sunset.” She pointed toward the water. “It gets really nice here.”
“Yeah, it’s a great spot for this. I’d say we have a little over an hour maybe.”
Claire had finished, and they did a girl hug together, Gabbie brightening, knowing someone came to hear her, someone from pottery. She said she usually only sings by herself. She wore a long-sleeve top, white with green on the collar and sleeves, and moved constantly with hand motions accentuating most phrases, plus she nervously fingered a small ukulele—clear plastic with its own little case. She also had a small dinosaur figure, a T-Rex, and her phone with earbuds. I thought that might be her music in case she got off track.
“My family thinks I’m crazy doing this. I just have to do it. I really want to sing and get a video, I would love to be a singer, that would be my thing. And the video’s for my fiancé. I want to send it to him. To remind him of me. He’s supposed to be driving over next week some time. We’ve been broken up for a few weeks, and his Mom is so against me, and when he spends time with her—she doesn’t really like me. She thinks I’m not good for her son, but we love each other so much, and he can’t really do without me, he tells me all the time, you know? But his Mom, yeah! And they have a lot of money, from Manhattan and their place in Florida is in Palm Beach, so he didn’t want to drive across the state, but that’s actually just her, telling him that. He said he’s coming down to Florida, and I’m in Florida, so he’s bringing my stuff. I still had stuff at their place. She pretty much kicked me out. I was staying there, we were together, and she just said I have to get out, and so I left, but where do you go, in Manhattan, you know? One day everything’s fine and the next day? I was basically homeless. You don’t just kick somebody out if they have nowhere to go. So, my Mom said I should come down to Florida, I’d never really been to Florida, but oh my God it’s so great! I love all the older people—everywhere—not that you guys are old—but it’s so green here, and I love the water. Just look at this place. I’ve always loved water.
“And my Mom, I get here, only like three weeks ago, and my Mom thinks I’m going crazy. Everybody’s telling me I need to see somebody.” She’s shaking her head. “You don’t think I’m crazy I hope.”
“No! You have an artistic personality, and you’re creative, you just have your own outlook. You have a high energy level, and you’re enthusiastic.”
“Well, I’m pretty nervous right now, actually. But I went for a psych eval. I just walked in. Everybody’s telling me I’m going crazy? So, I went in and told them I want a psych eval and tell me if I need help? They said, No, you’re fine. People who actually need help don’t walk right in and say, Can you do an eval? They see psychotic people, and people with problems, you know? They said I’m totally fine, and lucid, go about your life, you know? And I have that in writing. I just tossed that down in front of my Mom, right? But I did just see myself in the mirror, I’m a little blotchy right now, but it’s just nerves. I’m not used to this, but I’m a good singer. I can do this.”
“So, what are you singing?”
“Singing Randy Travis. Forever and Ever. They didn’t think they could do the Righteous Brothers, weren’t sure about that one, but they almost all know the Randy Travis. So, that’s what I’m doing. Can you really video me? What do you have? What kind of camera do you have?”
“Claire has the iPhone with three lenses, it’s fantastic. She got the new one just last month, and I talked her into getting the awesome camera, because she loves birds and she’s constantly trying to get good bird pics, so here look at this.” The latest iPhone looks like a miniature Hollywood Technicolor camera with three lenses on the back. “Claire’s telling me I should do the video, because I’m better at video.”
“You do videos?”
“No, not really. I’m a retired classroom teacher, but I’ve been making family videos for years, you know all the way back to the big handheld video cameras with battery packs and everything.”
During the next few minutes, using Claire’s iPhone, I took a few pics of Gabbie from different angles, trying to figure out the light and how it was hitting her. The closer we got to sunset, the harder this was going to get, and it didn’t take long to pick up on the fact that this girl’s life was wrapped up in this video for her boyfriend. She preferred calling him her fiancé. I hadn’t noticed a ring anywhere.
I didn’t know yet exactly where to stand, but she was up on her feet, and the musicians, mostly guys, early seventies, were asking for a key, but she didn’t answer. They glanced at each other, trying to get a clue. Then she started, swaying left-to right, glancing into her phone screen, afraid she’d forget the words, the crowd all watching her:
“You may think that I’m talking foolish,
You’ve heard that I’m wild and I’m free,”
Some in the audience were just figuring out that a different person was singing, and then trying to locate her, just standing to one side.
“You may wonder how, I can promise you now,
This love that I feel for you always will be,
But you’re not just time that I’m killing,
I’m no longer one of those girls,”
She’d floated off key and then back, and people had caught on and started smiling, noticing the pink in her hair and the little plastic ukulele she carried but didn’t play.
“As sure as I live, This love that I give
Is gonna be yours until the day that I die.
Oh, baby I’m gonna love you forever!
Forever and ever, amen
As long as old men sit and talk about the weather,
As long as old women sit and talk about old men
If you wonder how long I’ll be faithful
I’ll be happy to tell you again
I’m gonna love you forever and ever,
Forever and ever, amen!”
Gabbie was walking among the small crowd, as they smiled at the sincerity of her effort, some averting their eyes when she went a bit off key, but her energy and spirit ended up filling the space. Personally, I didn’t think there could be anyone there who doubted she meant every word she sang. Applause smattered her way as she finished her chorus repeat. Amen.
After, Gabriella wanted to grab a Pina Colada. The tiki bar is a short walk from the park. The three of us, fast friends now, sat at stools and ordered, and I put a card down. She told us how they’d met, him trying stand-up in LA, how they’d broken up years ago. How they’d both moved on to other relationships, and then how they’d suddenly reconnected. She was positive they were meant for each other. They were each the other’s best partner, linked forever, no matter what the evil mother from NYC thought. We also found out that the fiancé, Skip, was in line for a tremendous inheritance and his mother was hanging this over his head. His previous girlfriend was a Rockefeller.
“So, where is he staying in Florida, Palm Springs?”
“No, no,” she says, “Palm Springs is by LA. Palm Beach is in Florida.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry, I actually know that.” I point at my head. “I get the names mixed up. I flew to LA once, a girl in the next seat clutching this photo and tears dripping down. Of course, I asked her what’s wrong, and she tells me she’s just left her fiancé’s family. We were flying out of DC, and she’d just been at her boyfriend’s Marine graduation ceremony from diplomatic service training, so his next stop is to be posted somewhere in the world, they don’t tell you where until you’re going, and at the ceremony the featured speaker was a Marine Colonel who’d twice been at US embassies under attack in a foreign city. So, that’s what they make the wives and families listen to. She had to fly back immediately, for work, and she lived in Palm Springs. We literally flew over it—she could actually see the parking lot where she worked. She’s crying again, three hours later now, and I ask her if she couldn’t call in. She said, No her boss was ready to fire her just for flying to DC for her boyfriend’s ceremony, so she was going to pick up her car at LAX and drive right to work. She’d probably be about an hour late but her boss was just going to have to deal.”
Gabbie said, “That’s bad. People are mean. My boyfriend’s mother would do that. She is so dead set. But I think we’ll be back together. He’s driving over, I know he is. She wanted me to drive across the state to pick up my own stuff. I don’t even have a car! Although, I could probably borrow my Mom’s minivan, but c’mon, they have so many cars, and it’s only about three hours. Driving seventeen hours from NY? I think he could drive over and bring my stuff to the Gulf side. We’ve been together almost three years.”
Claire and I listened at the bar. The more we heard the easier it was to begin to believe that Gabbie was talking herself into things that she desperately wanted to believe, this bright, wonderful girl hanging onto the edge, the edge of something crumbling.
A couple days later Skip did make the drive. When he arrived with all of her things she talked to him about chucking it all again, telling his Mom where to get off, and just staying. Staying on the Gulf side. Gabbie had created this plan in which the two of them would start a business together, he had enough funds to get this going, she said, and they could make a go of it. Two against the world.
Skip didn’t buy this version of his life, and he got into his Land Rover and started back across Alligator Alley, the interstate to the Atlantic side. Minutes later Gabbie tried to call him, but he didn’t pick up, so she knew he wasn’t going to answer his phone on the drive. She borrowed the minivan, her Mom’s, with permission, and took off after him.
We heard next day on the news. An accident, a minivan off the highway and into the swamp. There are several stretches where that sort of thing can happen, especially driving too fast for conditions. I have to admit, and I didn’t talk about this to anyone, I also wondered about the other possibility, that she may have turned the wheel on purpose. The driver, a young woman with long hair, had been ejected through the windshield, not wearing a belt, and she’d been thrown into the water, unconscious, and then died by drowning.
That next week our dog was put down. What had seemed an eye infection somehow transformed into something life threatening, and she’d had considerable diagnostics over a couple days. The last morning a doggie neurologist examined her, telling our son that of the three possibilities which were stroke, tumor, or meningitis, the only way to distinguish would be an MRI which for dogs requires general anesthesia, and then she explained that they could do this if desired, but that in her own estimation the dog was already too far gone. She was blind now, lacked muscular coordination throughout her body, and in pain. Claire had already changed plans to fly home to help nurse her, but by the time she got on the flight the dog was already gone.
I was still in Florida, following my usual routines. Three days after the dog news I happen to walk past the tiki bar where just a week before we’d shared pina coladas with a beautiful, talkative girl with bright long hair who wanted to sing. I’m on the sidewalk going past—just a fitness walk I do—and she’s in the sand, almost bumping into me with the front wheel of her bicycle.
She sees me first. “Oh, Hi!”
“Gabriella! We’ve been thinking about you. Claire flew home a few days ago. Our dog died back home, so she flew home to try to help, but it was too late to do anything. So, how are you doing?”
“I’m doing great!” she announces. “I got the church!”
“Wow. That’s amazing!” I have no idea what she’s talking about. My mind’s jumping back to the minivan crash, which—of course, must have been some other vibrant, wonderful girl, not this one.
“Yeah, so it’s in Miami, Liberty City actually. But it’s so perfect. It’s this old church and it’s been empty for years, but it’s in really good condition. I mean it needs work, but it’ll be so great.” No doubt she could read my eyes, that I’m not only surprised to see her but have no idea what she’s talking about. “So, did I tell you and Claire about my art gallery idea?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, my Mom just left here—we were at the bar making plans. It’s going to be a gallery to show people’s works, visual art, pottery, anything, just like at Jock’s studio, all that stuff is so amazing. Sienna! We’re just going to buy pieces, everything at full asking price, and then have this really perfect upscale gallery space, and everything auctions. Everything gets a minimum bid of a hundred dollars. So. I just need $100,000 by next month, which I think is going to be pretty easy. That’s almost nothing, you know? That gets us the church, and then we have to raise the rest as we go.”
I’m just nodding, a bit numb, not knowing what I could even say. The smile, the hair. The coloring was out, back to blond. “Are you doing a GoFundMe?”
She’s nodding too now. “I’m learning. It’s a lot. Your whole life is just a piece of your own art, right?”
Then she sketches out her dream to me—the financing, the space, the neighborhood, publicity, outreach. She knows somebody that does not-for-profits, how to get those set up the best way. Her elevator pitch, standing in the sand wearing a bike helmet. No one really knows what comes next.