Falling, water

Crash, bang, boom: my older daughter’s bookshelf is coming apart. The base is slowly widening and the shelves are coming off their pegs.

As she removes the books, another shelf comes down. Amazingly, she catches it. My husband and I decide it is time to retire the shelves, bought in 1991, from reading ads in the Village Voice. Children, this was how we found the sales.

I dismantle the bookshelf, the scarred, dinged and now fatally unstable survivor of many house moves. There is another cheap bookshelf upstairs ready to take its place, one that holds photo albums, the children’s writing portfolios, binders and my 14 spiral-bound Strathmore Sketch notebooks from 1986-92. I unload the shelves, which would need to be unloaded soon anyway as their space is to become the laundry room.

All day, things in the house have been fumbled and nearly dropped. It is a day of near misses.

The weekend began early Saturday morning, driving to the neighboring state of Tennessee for a swim meet. The swim taxi (unmarked vehicle) is our friend’s station wagon, which arrives in the pre-dawn, laden with towels, waters, cereal, cut-up fruit, books in Ziploc bags and iPods. As the sun rises over a brittle landscape we see hard frost on the fields. We pass through the borderland of firework shacks, where billboards aggressively advertise for cave tourism and little else.

Watching the younger daughter climb onto the diving platform she seems so competent but at the same time, vulnerable, waiting for the horn. I hold my breath as she is falling into the water, then swimming.

Afterwards, we go to a family-style restaurant where the foods of the day are set out on turntables on eight-top tables. An efficient delivery system. Multi-generational families come in, the old people looking a bit like old people from the past. There is a lot of white food: chicken and dumplings in a gluey white sauce; creamy coleslaw with a tinge of green, no carrot; a dish of broken cherry pie, the fruit obscured by thick syrup, pieces of crust like the debris of a shipwreck; fried okra; pulled pork; fried chicken; biscuits and cornbead, replenished as they are eaten. You, too, would look like an old person from the past if you ate here regularly, in earnest.

The restaurant is in a part of town with houses painted bright yellow, chain link fenced yards, auto repair places. Downtown efforts have been made to revitalize the waterfront and, aquarium aside, it would be worth a return visit on a warmer day. The art museum is perched on a bluff where there was once a furnace, an iron smelting plant, and before that it was believed by the Cherokees to be the home of a mythical giant. The museum’s windows are a fiery amber gash recalling the industrial past.

There is a blue pedestrian bridge across the river, an amphitheater below. There are things to climb. Across the river is a fountain with sandstone animals, and a carousel. There is pet bakery, a fire hydrant painted like a dalmatian, an assumption that people will park and walk around. It is like a city in a way that our city isn’t.

Across the ocean, an Italian cruise ship has run aground. There are radio interviews with the survivors. Men pushed their way into lifeboats to stay with their families. The captain did not stay with the ship. The first man of 200 people to jump overboard describes his thoughts when the tilt of the boat suggested worse to come; swimming as fast as they could so that it wouldn’t fall on them. So far, the last person to be rescued alive was a dancer from the ship’s floorshow who had been separated from her friends and updated her Facebook status to let them know she was okay.

I unscrew the panel from the back of the bookshelf. Some of the screws are bent and bent again. I unbolt the top and bottom and it is dismantled for the last time.

I empty the shelves upstairs and look through the photo albums. My grandmother’s silly college pix with paper hearts affixed to the corners, the girls in the 20s, waved hair, fur collars, rolled stockings. My photo albums from when the girls were little, reminding me that I need to order prints from the past two years. So many moments, unremarked on, unannotated. You guess at their meanings and the identities of the people pictured, the photographer’s shadow.

Out of Chattanooga, we miss our exit. The falling water has frozen against the rock face and hangs in icicles. Keep driving. Change route. Exit later.

Picture the shipwreck, the difficult dive, the calculations. Swimming among what people have packed for a pleasure cruise. The towels all wet, the books no longer protected by a plastic bag, the pages unglued, a swirl of snapshots. The passengers dive. The swimmers dive. My grandmother and her friends in their swimming costumes wave, pose, then dive. Cherokee boys on an ancient bluff dive. What remains? Some names from Cherokee mythology carved in the rock, cryptic notes in the photo album, race times scribbled on the heat sheet, another blog post into the ether of words and memories. Dive, dive, dive again.

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