EXCERPTS—No Set Boundaries: Eleven Stories of Life, Travel, Misadventure
By Townsend 11, Volume 2
Edited by Larry Habegger
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Castles in the Sky
I close my eyes, hoping not to witness imminent destruction. A young child, about five years old, hovers almost three stories above the ground, barely balancing on top of a shaky pillar of flesh.
I can’t resist. Despite the pounding in my chest, I peek through my fingers and watch another boy scamper toward the sky. Pressing his hands and bare feet into the backs and shoulders of men and women with wobbly knees, the lanky 10-year-old tow-head passes the balcony where the mayor and other dignitaries stand open-mouthed. The boy climbs higher. The human obelisk sways.
In a few seconds, I’m certain, bodies will collapse upon one another and screams will pierce the crowded Barcelona square, now blanketed in silence.
“Posso (may I)?” I asked. I slipped off my old coat and slipped on the new one. The man was at my side helping me thread the belt through the loops. He snugged it tight, pulled at the back seam, and asked me to turn around.
“You need a smaller size,” he said definitively. Sadly he didn’t have the coat in my size. But he insisted that I try on three skirts that would be perfect for me, and sent me to the dressing rooms. As I changed into the first one, I could see through the curtains that another woman had emerged from her changing room and stood in front of the mirrors. The shopkeeper was on her like a magnet, tugging at her waistband and agreeing with her that the skirt made her stomach look poofy.
She asked for a thinner waistband, inquired about a shorter jacket, and wondered if he had something with pleats that opened up just so. Through the crack in the curtains, I tracked his search for the woman’s requests. I also watched his large hands flatten the seams over her shoulders and pull at her cuffs. When he suggested that pleated pants would be more flattering, I cringed. I’d never get used to a man telling me that my waist was too big.
A Visit to Brokeleg Mountain
I was rounding a right curve at the time, leaning in the direction of the turn, and when the front tire lost its purchase, the bike went down in the direction I was tilting. I stayed on the bike during the fall, not even having time to stick my foot out. I slid along the ground for a few yards, enough to scrape “layers” of skin off my right knee. I had a premonition that this was going to be no ordinary boo-boo, and when I finally stopped, I hurt.
Getting up, I had trouble standing; my right leg kept wanting to buckle at the knee. I staggered around drunkenly for several minutes until I discovered that if I locked the knee-joint, it would hold me. Blood dripped down the leg, and my right elbow seeped as well.
“Oh shit,” I whispered to no one in particular. I was alone.
With no idea why my johnson is out of joint, and fearing that the change will continue, I consult my doctor again. This time I schedule an office visit. Obviously my condition, whatever it is, demands careful examination and meticulous study. As usual when anticipating someone handling my nether regions, however professionally, I imagine my embarrassment if I get aroused, especially if the handler is a woman…or a man, for that matter. On the other hand, the bend is only visible during erection, so…what is the protocol here?
He unfolded a map over his steering wheel, and then looked at the intersection in dismay. I could see the problem: Our street led into a confusion of one-way Rues. He could take a sharp right onto Rue du Four, a sharp left onto Rue du Cherche-Midi, or a lazy right onto Rue du Dragon, but he couldn’t continue straight ahead.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
He smushed the map between his hands, tossed it onto the passenger seat, and drove off. It was just as well. I probably would have sent him to Lyon.
“Is it just as good as a real beach? It looks pretty nice!”
“Well, I know about real beaches, I can tell you! I flew on the airplane to Mexico once. The sand fleas bit me to pieces and I got sick from the food. Never again! I can just get on the coach and be here in a couple of hours. It’s a break from the cold.”
“Do you stay here at the Mall then?”
“Yes, I’m going to sleep in the back of a pickup truck tonight!” She smiled, excited. “You know, they have those rooms in the hotel. Haven’t slept in a pickup truck since, well, since I was a young girl.”
Her smile was suddenly embarrassed and her shyness returned. She hurried through the door into the beach. Apparently the pickup truck brought back fond memories.
Last fall, the garden was my office, where on warm afternoons I worked surrounded by branches heavy with eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini, beds overflowing with lettuce, chard, spinach, herbs of all sorts, and pumpkins huge and burnt orange like the sun. On those fall days, I came to my garden to sit under the great oak at one of the huge redwood tables and read student papers, plan class, and muse. Not just the vegetable beds overflowed then, but the flower beds bloomed too, with stalks rising tall in vibrant rows.
On those warm fall afternoons as I completed my school work, around me the gardeners, professional and volunteer, clipped and quietly nurtured the plants. And on the warmest days, I rested my head on my briefcase and dozed like a lazy cat sheltered from the hot sun. The garden actually has its own cat, an orange tabby who wisely watches the comings and goings of visitors and who likely observed me as I slept.
Jaisalmer: A Desert Kingdom
The Sam Sand Dunes. My Lawrence of Arabia moment arrives. My girlfriends and I travel west, sharing the road with military caravans going to the Pakistani border, while we go to the Sam Sand Dunes to explore the desert. I am eager to trek by camelback. No one, however, tells me how hard it is to get onto a camel.
I swing my leg over the saddle, covered in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie calico fabric. My legs dangle. I grip the horn until my knuckles turn white. I am not going to get tossed off this camel without a fight. But I have no leverage and am digging my heels into the poor camel’s girth until the camel handler slides the stirrup over my tense feet. The creature gets up suddenly, first tossing me back, then throwing me forward. I’m surprised I haven’t pitched over the camel’s head with a triple somersault. Somehow, I stay upright and in my seat.
My Ethiopian Tent
“So, can you tell me what’s going on between you and, uhmm, Desta?”
“What is it, exactly, you’d like to know?” I was going to make him say it. What was my crime?
Mr. Brown was gathering his thoughts, and I was thinking of everything I would not tell him.
I never told anyone how I had felt at the beginning of the hollow-eyed time, when my infatuation with Desta began. How it started on its own—I didn’t seek it—and how it then evolved. I never told how, when I had more friendship from Desta, the plain and simple sadness of loneliness didn’t hurt as much.
Decades later, when my father died, I would learn how grief—the tremendous sadness of losing a loved one—takes away your appetite, your energy, and your will to be at your best. Grief was exactly like that lonely isolation. Truly, I have never forgotten the blessed relief, when his friendship eased the heavy feeling in my stomach, when I once again took deep, refreshing breaths.
Sunset at Bayon
The warm night air was fresh. The pores of my skin opened up allowing tension to escape and tiredness to seep in. It had been a long day. Suddenly, I realized the source of the spotlight: pedal-rickshaw drivers had encircled us. More flashlights shined. The drivers were examining our faces, checking us out, looking for exhausted, gullible prey. A medley of voices shouted in brusque English. “Hotel. Cheap.” “How are you? Come with me!” “Sleep? Come.”
The clamor floated in the darkness, echoing the purr of the bus, creating the atmosphere of a busy night bazaar. A beam swept past me onto Chris, a man I’d met on the bus, who stood silently beside me. The voices quieted down. I felt the light back on my face, then all the lights rushed to focus on Chris. A curious silence fell.
A Trickle of Time and Water
It was near here that life on the canal began to converge with my romantic notions of the region. After passing through 15 locks, at la Domergue we finally found the veteran eclusier I was expecting. Raymond didn’t look much older than 50, but he’d been running the locks here for the past six years after manning other locks for shorter periods.
Gray tresses streamed from beneath his baseball cap and his gap-toothed smile shone with the energy of a man pleased with his situation in life. His surroundings confirmed it. He had turned his domain into a peaceful garden with roses, geraniums, petunias, and hibiscus he’d pruned to grow tall. Like so many of the other ecluses, Raymond’s patch of France was a place to admire when passing through, and a welcoming place to reflect for those who moored to stay awhile.
Did Raymond care if the TGV could get him from Toulouse to Paris in six hours? That Airbus was working on the largest aircraft ever built? He opened the locks, tended his garden, and conversed with passing boat-hands as if this was the world that truly mattered.
And at that moment it mattered to me. The calm here allowed my mind to detach from everyday worries and wander. In the dreamy green light after we’d left Raymond’s garden, ducks swam along the canal’s edges, and I remembered other ducks, other times.
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