“Did I miss another birthday?” I said to my brother through my mobile phone.
“No, it’s just a celebration party,” he replied.
“She wants it to be a surprise. You coming or what?”
“Okay. Yeah. Just finishing up this job then I’ll be there. Twenty minutes.”
“Alright,” my brother said before hanging up the phone. I grabbed the hose off my truck and aimed it toward the sizzling skillet of a street. The water washed the raccoon jambalaya into the grass. Mealtime was over.
I got back into my truck and took off my sweat-soaked hat, used a hand towel to wipe my forehead, and then put on my “dress” hat. Whatever hat they gave us at the Christmas party became my “dress” hat and the “dress” hat from the previous year became my cooking hat. My cooking hat from the previous year was always disposed of immediately.
Once I was dressed for the part I headed toward my brother’s house. There is a private company that keeps roadkill off the roads in his neighborhood so I don’t make it over there often. I bet those crews arrive on the scene before the poor animal has even breathed it’s last breath. They probably have a coroner on staff.
The last time I was there would have been for Dak’s birthday. His fifteenth birthday. No, seventeenth. Why is it so hard to remember. There’s just two of them.
I know she’s nine.
I remember seeing the rainbow number on her elephant cake in May. A month is about the limit of my memory.
My estimate of twenty minutes was pretty close. No one was keeping track. I rang my brother’s doorbell.
“There you are. She wouldn’t start without you.”
“Yeah. Come in. Let’s get this started.”
“Sure, yeah. Of course.”
We walked through the entryway, through the dining room, down the hallway, down the stairs, through the downstairs living room, past the game room, through the kitchenette, and out to the pool area where everyone had gathered.
“Uncle Todd! You’re here,” I heard a young voice from the table.
“Of course, Ella. I wouldn’t miss it,” I replied.
“Now we can start. Sit, sit,” she urged.
“Come on, everyone. Find a seat. Ella is ready to share her big surprise,” my brother called out. A few neighbor kids landed their drone and joined the group. The adults were standing. I didn’t know how. If I were wearing those heels I’d never want to stand again. These must be Emma’s friends. My brother’s friends were probably working. I’m surprised he’s not working. I’ve never seen my brother before five-thirty on a weekday. I found a seat next to Dak.
“Hey sport, how’s it going?” I said.
“Why do you call me sport? I’ve never played a sport in my life,” he replied.
“Sorry. How about this,” I paused. “Hey chip! Get it? Because computers.”
“Hmph,” he murmured.
I sat there searching for some kind of common ground between us when Emma stood in front of everyone and started speaking.
“Thank you for coming. Ella is very excited for this surprise. She hasn’t even told me or Dean. She insisted all of you be here to hear it. How sweet, right?”
Everyone oh’d and ah’d.
I missed the cue.
“Well, dear. We’re dying to hear it. We’re all yours,” Emma said as she sat down.
“Thanks mommy,” Ella said standing in front of us. She held a single piece of paper in her hand. “My surprise is that I won the poetry contest in Mrs. Fishborne’s class at school.” She smiled wide and raised herself up on her tiptoes. Everyone started clapping.
I did not see that coming. Should I have? Has she written poetry before?
“Thank you. Can I read it for you? Okay?”
Everyone nodded and agreed.
She cleared her throat and waited a few seconds before starting.
“The Earth spinning like a tire rolling down a hill. Spinning. Spinning. Days and days. Spinning. Spinning. I am inside. Dizzy. Dizzy. When will I reach the bottom?”
Everyone clapped and cheered. Ella looked like she had just lost her puppy.
“That is very good, Ella,” her mom said as she joined her in the spotlight. “Thank you all for coming. Stay as long as you like.” Everyone went back to chatting and drinking and eating. It felt like Ella’s poem was just an intermission to the social gathering. Ella went to the trampoline. I followed.
“You really wrote that all by yourself?” I said to my niece laying on her back on the trampoline.
“I did,” she raised her head. “Did you like it?”
“Did I like it? You betcha I liked it. How did you learn to write like that?”
“I don’t know. I have a lot more poems in my room. They aren’t very good though.”
“I bet they are. Can I read them sometime?” I asked.
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll go get them.” She jumped down from the elastic toy and ran inside.
Alice read me a poem once. I didn’t understand it. She seemed upset with me a bit. I probably deserved it. I didn’t try to understand. I wish she would read me a poem now.
“Here’s a good one,” Ella said running back toward me with a notebook in hand. “It’s funny. It’s about goldfish.”
“Well, go on then,” I said.
Gold is worth a lot of dollars, a dollar worth a lot of dimes, a dime worth a couple pennies, a penny worth not much at all. And even though the fish is gold, buy one for a penny sold.”
She looked up and smiled. “Get it? It’s not really gold. If it was they would be very expensive.”
“That’s true. I never thought of it that way,” I looked over across the pool to the other adults enjoying the abundance of my brother’s house. “Kind of like whoever named the goldfish wanted to trick someone into thinking it is expensive.”
“But it’s just goldfish. Mommy and daddy could buy a million of them,” she laughed.
“What about the poem earlier? The one that won the contest. It’s kind of sad isn’t it?” I asked.
“I guess so.” She broke eye contact with me. “Did it make you sad?”
“I-I don’t know,” I replied. Before anyone could say another word my phone rang. “This is Todd. Okay. 8th and Laurel? On my way.” I looked down to my niece waiting for me to speak. “I’m sorry dear, but I have to go.”
“Did an animal die?”
“Yes it is. I’ll give it a proper funeral.”
“Okay,” she said. “Love you Uncle Todd.”
“Love you too, Ella.” I walked toward the house to say my goodbyes. After I walked a few paces I turned around toward Ella. “I want to hear another poem next time, if you’ll let me.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “I want to hear one of yours too.” After she said this she ran and jumped on the trampoline.
One of my poems?
I can’t stop thinking about Ella’s poem.
I don’t know anything about poetry, but it is staying with me. Something about that poem is staying with me. Is it the words? Is it because she is my niece and I am getting soft in my old age? Is it because I’ve been alone that last few weeks? She’s only nine years old. How can her words move me so much?
These questions, and others like them, filled my mind as I cleaned the opossum from 8th and Laurel. They filled my mind as I drove home. They filled my mind as I prepared my frozen pizza. They filled my mind as I watched the football game. It was too much.
I turned the game off during the third quarter. Ranger, my black lab, lifted his head. I found a piece of junk mail that was only printed on one side and I grabbed a pencil from Alice’s craft bag. Then I sat down at the kitchen table. Ranger stretched out on the floor beside me.
I’m not sure what I expected to happen.
No words came to me.
It was just a staring contest between myself and the blank paper.
“What am I doing, buddy. I don’t know how to write poetry,” I said to my dog. He looked up at me without lifting his head. “It wouldn’t make a difference now anyway. I’ve done messed everything up.” I put the pencil down on the paper and went back to my recliner in the living room. The fourth quarter just started.
“Hey Dean, do you mind if I pick Ella up from school today? I’ve got a question for her,” I said to my brother.
“Really? That would be great, actually. Me and Emma have a meeting at 3,” my brother replied.
“Okay, no problem. I’ll take care of it.”
I hung up the phone and looked at the clock on my phone. It’s 2:17. Ella gets out of school in less than an hour. I finished a quick squirrel appetizer and made my way to the school. I’m early. I took out the piece of paper from last night and grabbed a pencil from my glove box.
How do people fill entire books with poetry?
The bell rang and children spilled onto the school grounds. I put my paper down and left the truck to find Ella. She walked out of the school looking like it was her first day. Then she saw me and smiled and ran to give me a big hug.
“Uncle Todd!” she said.
“Hey Ella bear. Ready to go?”
“Do I get to ride in the animal ambulance?”
“You sure do. In fact, I need a co-pilot to help me drive it.”
She smiled big and ran toward the truck. I jog-walked behind her. I didn’t want to look too ridiculous. But I couldn’t let her run in the parking lot by herself.
“Can we get ice cream on the way home?”
“I don’t know,”
“Please, please, please,” she begged.
“Only if you read me another poem,” I bargained.
“Okay,” she agreed. “Good thing I brought my notebook.”
“Good thing,” I said as we left the traffic of the post-bell school parking lot.
“Okay, here’s one. It’s about apples.”
“I’m all ears.”
“An apple yes, I think I would. An apple pie, don’t think I should. And appled eye, I fancy yes. The apple big, I'll have to pass.”
“Ha, that’s funny. And very good.”
“Thanks,” she said through her smile. She put her notebook in her book bag and looked out the window. “Where’s Aunt Alice?”
“What?” I replied.
“She didn’t come to my birthday or my surprise party.”
“She,” I paused. At what age do you stop sugarcoating the truth for children? “We’re upset with each other right now.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Why are you upset with her?”
“Well, I’m not, actually.”
“So she’s upset with you.”
“What did you do?” she pried.
“I was not very nice to her,” I said.
“Did you say sorry?”
“I did. Many times. She doesn’t believe me though.”
“If you mean it, she’ll forgive you. She’s a good aunt.”
“Yes she is. Yes she is.”
We rode in silence for a few minutes before Ella threw her hands up in an instant.
“Woah, you scared me there. Everything okay?”
“I’ve got an idea for you,” she replied.
“Well, spit it out,” I said.
“You should write a poem saying you’re sorry and put it in a contest. That would show Aunt Alice that you mean it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why not? I’ll help you Uncle Todd.”
A nine year old girl helping a fifty-two year old man. What a thought. Five years ago I wouldn’t even be having this conversation. I never cared for children. I never thought they could do me any good. But Ella was different. She changed things for me.
“Well, if you promise to help,” I said.
“Of course,” she said with a giggle. “And can I get two scoops instead of one?”
“Ha, I guess so,” I replied.
That night, while the pizza was in the oven, I logged in to my computer and searched for poetry contests for beginners.
“What am I doing, pup?” I said to my four legged friend laying beside me.
I clicked on the first result. Gotta start somewhere I guess.
It’s free to enter. That’s good. They take mailed entries by post. Better stick to what I know best and not try to do that email stuff. Fifty dollars for the winner? Not bad. I could use some new boots.
Wait, that’s not why I’m doing this. Not for the money. For Alice. I’m doing this for Alice.
It’s a themed contest. What’s the theme?
Well then, this contest must have been created just for me. I think I can do that. When is the deadline?
July 4th? But it can be postmarked by July 5th? Who does that? That’s only three days from now. I can’t do this. I don’t have enough time. Three days is not enough time. What am I thinking? I couldn’t even do this if I had three years. I don’t know how to write poetry.
I closed the computer and put my head back on the couch. I closed my eyes. And then it came to me.
Why is care only present in absence?
What was that?
I rushed to the dining room and grabbed my paper and pencil and wrote down the line. I did it. Poetry. It came to me. More. I wanted more. But the smell of overcooked pizza filled my nostrils as I realized the oven was beeping for my attention.
I didn’t get any more words that night.
But I got seven.
One of the only days of the year where I get to delay a day in cleaning up nature’s leftovers. Usually me and Alice watch the fireworks show at the end of the street. I don’t know what’s more fun, watching the glow of the fireworks or the faces of the kids lighting fuses. This year will be different. I can’t watch them at the end of the street. Alice is staying with her friend across the street which means they will both be there. I guess I’ll go to my brother’s house. Better than staying here alone. I got ready early and headed to Dean’s house just after lunch.
The party had already started.
There was a game of badminton going on in the yard. A few people had just returned from tubing on the lake that hugged the back edge of the yard. Water flew in a steady stream past my face as a kid ran by with a water gun. He was being chased by a drone shooting water. The men were smoking ribs and cigars by the grill. Ella was on the trampoline writing in her notebook.
I walked over to her.
“Isn’t it hot on that trampoline?”
“Uncle Todd!” she sat up. “What’re you doing here? You never come to fourth of July with us?”
“Well, remember how I told you how Aunt Alice is upset with me?”
“We usually watch fireworks at our house, but, since she’s not there, I didn’t want to watch alone.”
“She’s still upset with you?” she asked.
“Afraid so,” I replied.
“Did you write her a poem yet?”
“No. Well, kind of. I wrote one sentence.”
“That’s good. That’s how I start all of my poems.”
“Well then, thank you. Can I hear another of your poems?”
“Okay,” she smiled. “Happy or sad or funny?”
“What’s the difference between happy and funny?”
“The same difference between a hug and a joke.”
“What? I don’t really get it.”
“Me either. But I think there’s a difference. What kind do you want to hear?”
“Happy,” I said.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” she replied. “I’ve got a good one.” She took a few moments to flip through her notebook. The badminton game turned into a volleyball game. The people from the lake had dried off. The drone was on the charger near the house. The men were now only smoking the cigars. The ribs were being eaten.
“Found it,” she said.
“I’m all ears,” I replied.
“Doers do. That’s what they do. They cannot help but get things done. Time is spent fulfilling dreams, not drowning in the dumb.
Doers do, for many days. The display of what doers do? Dreams made true by those who do. Those who decided to get things done.
Doers do, though difficult and daunting to daily do and do and do. Don’t delay! Do today, and that doer can be you.”
“Wow, Ella, that’s incredible. Really.”
“Thanks Uncle Todd. I think you’re the only one who thinks so.”
“No, I know your mom and dad care.”
“Kind of. It’s okay though. I like it.”
“You’re something special, kid.”
“No you are!”
“Ha, oh Ella.” I said looking to the groups of people around the yard.
“What’re you thinking about, Uncle Todd?”
“Oh,” I said. Her question shocked me back from my thoughts. “I’m just thinking about my poem. I think I know what to write next.”
“We'll go write it then,” she urged. “You don't want to lose it.”
“If you have a good idea and you don't write it down it’s hard to remember.”
“But the fireworks?” I replied.
“They’ll be here next year. You better go.”
“Ha, you're right. Thanks Ella.”
“You bet, Uncle Todd.”
“If anyone asks where I went, tell them I’m not feeling too good,” I said even though I knew no one would ask.
“Sounds good! Good luck,”
“Thanks,” I said as I headed toward the gate of the fence on the side of the house. No one stopped me or asked where I was going. I was home in half an hour.
“Hey pup,” I said to my four legged pal waiting for me at home. I let him out the back and sat down at the table. The pencil and paper were waiting for me from the night before. I took a moment to gather my thoughts from the party and the car ride home.
Moments later the words spilled out like when the hose from my truck gets straightened out. It was incredible. The words were already written in my mind and I just copied them down on paper. These words and feelings and thoughts are things I've never written or felt or thought.
I feel them now.
Maybe I have felt them before, but I never had words for them. I never tried to have words for them. I never sat down and tried to express myself. I never sat down and tried to process what is happening. I never considered what I value and what it means to value something. I've never intentionally valued something.
I have missed out on something special.
As I wrote the last line I heard the fireworks start. Alice would be out there. She would be out there with her friends at the end of the street watching the sky flowers. I could seal this poem up and put it in the mailbox and still have time to go talk to her. That was one option.
I searched around her office again before finding an envelope that was much too large for the piece of paper. I forgot that I wrote the poem on the back of a bill.
The poetry contest people probably don't receive a lot of entries this way. It will work for my purposes. The poem shook back in forth in the large envelope as I walked to the back door and let Ranger in.
“I'll be right back, buddy. I've just got to deliver this real fast,” I said to my dog. He jumped up on his back legs as if he was giving me a hug. “Thanks boy.”
I walked out the door.
The entire neighborhood was gathered at the end of the street. Children were waving sparklers. Some of the teenagers were lighting the big fireworks. I spotted Alice standing on the sidewalk in front of her friend’s house. Her head was tilted upward as she watched the fire show. I took a deep breath and walked over to her. Before she could say anything I asked her a question she had never heard from me before.
“I wrote a poem for you. Can I read it?”