Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: That Little Glass Jar
Billy sat at the picnic table, shivering, despite having on a hat, gloves, and his puffiest down coat. “Dang. It gets cold in the mountains, don’t it?” he thought as he picked up his mug full of hot chocolate. He let the steam from it warm his nose and chin before he took a chug, and felt its heat flow down his throat until it stopped in his stomach. He looked at the mug. “Making hot chocolate’s a bitch, but so worth it.”
He stood up, and took in his surroundings. The park campground was almost deserted, but that didn’t surprise him. It was late February, and there was still snow on the ground in the mountains.
He’d always wanted to spend a weekend in the mountains, in the snow, all by himself. To experience such a weekend. The cold. The snow. The wind. And the scenery. Ice encrusted streams and creeks. Waterfalls outlined with snow. It was all pictures he’d seen out of books.
Yeah. It was cold. But he didn’t really care. He was living out a dream.
He turned back to his picnic table, and his propane stove. He poured some more pancake batter on the griddle, and watched his pancakes bake, the batter bubbling. “I love it! I get to do what I want. Eat what I want. Walk all I want.” He looked around again. “And there’s noone here!”
Billy hated crowds. People always getting in the way as he tried to take pictures. Staying up stupidly late, making noise, keeping him awake. And why did they always bring their dogs? Really? Dogs at a campground? Leaving shit everywhere? Even on the trails?
When his pancakes had finished, he rolled a slice of cheddar cheese up in each one. One of his favorite breakfasts. Pancakes with cheddar, and hot chocolate.
He sat at his picnic table, and drank in the scenery. The leafless trees, with white, fluffy branches, and icicles were gorgeous. He knew he’d take a zillion pictures of them, trying to capture just one image that came anywhere near what his eyes saw. He knew he’d fail, but that was OK. It was all about trying. Exploring. Making the effort.
He took another chug of hot chocolate, and thought of the people he once knew. Trapped in little office cubes for hours on end. Answering their phones. Editing their documents. Endlessly testing applications on their computers. He thought about how much those people hated what they were doing. And how they kept doing it anyway. So they could pay the bills. He remembered Tom’s words. “Yeah. It sucks. But I do it anyway. Because I get paid to. And I can’t afford to not get paid.”
Yet, he was sitting at a picnic table at a campground in the mountains in West Virginia, and all those people he used to work with were sitting in little cubes in a cube farm in a building somewhere, with no windows, and yellow-green fluorescent lighting sucking the life out of them all day long. He was walking around in the snow, and ice, in the mountains. They were sitting in cubes, their bodies slowly turning into useless lumps of flab.
Sometimes, Billy thought of sending a DVD full of pictures to the office he once worked at. Pictures of flowers in spring. Camellias in winter. Waterfalls in the mountains. Snow covered trees on the edge of a cliff. Deer grazing in a field. Hawks soaring in the sky, among the clouds. He thought about attaching a simple note. “See what y’all are missing!” But he never did. He knew he never would.
He knew he'd never hear from them. He knew they'd tell each other how sad it was, what happened to him, the way he'd lost everything. He knew they'd talk of how lucky he was, able to take such trips. He knew everyone would say, “lucky dog,” and make plans for after they retired.
He knew they wouldn’t know how hard he’d worked to get those pictures. How much he’d had to scrimp and save. He knew they’d never understand life after work when you’re not retired. They’d never understand the glass jar he kept on the kitchen counter, with the tape on the side that said, “for adventures”. He put all the change in his pocket in that jar, every night.
He had days he couldn’t eat dinner, because he didn’t have any cash, and his refrigerator was empty. “Peanut butter on a spoon tonight!” He’d lost count of the times dinner had been peanut butter. Dirt cheap. And filling.
He could have dipped into his adventure money jar, and made it to the next paycheck. But he refused. He had dreams. Things he wanted to do. Places he wanted to go. He needed to escape the world once in a while. To get away from the endless droning of money, money, money, more, more, more.
He knew. A bigger car, a bigger house, a riding lawnmower, a smart phone, and all the rest, were just there to blind you to the misery you were in. He understood. He’d been there. “I need something new in life!” So you buy a new phone. Or a new computer. Or a new TV. Or another game you’ll never finish. Or another book you’ll never read.
People collected stuff. That was their escape.
He’d learned the stuff didn’t help. It just lead to an endless loop of buying more and more stuff. Kind of like binge drinking. Or any number of addictions. Where you always have to have the next dose. Because if you don’t, you have to face what you’re escaping.
Billy smiled. “Take care of my friends,” he whispered to the universe. “Don’t give up on them.” He’d emptied his adventure jar three days ago. Made his reservations at the campground. Packed his tent, and camping gear into his 12-year-old Honda Civic hatchback. And headed to the mountains. To sleep on the frozen ground. To walk trails through the ice and snow. To stand before waterfalls lined with ice.
He wasn’t there to escape anything. He was there to see. To experience. To feel.
That’s what his adventure jar was for. To give him a chance to feel. To feel the cold. The biting wind. The heartless nature of the rocks. To feel the cold truth that life on Earth would be there long after he was gone. To feel tiny. To feel weak. To feel everything.
He sat at the picnic table, and smiled. He closed his eyes, and just felt the breeze flowing through the campground. The wind was from the north-west, and had a strong bite to it. He felt himself shiver. In a few minutes, he knew, he’d pack up his stove, and breakfast stuff. Then, he’d take his camera, and take a long walk on a mountain trail. He knew he wouldn’t even notice the cold. He knew he’d be too wrapped up in experiencing the raw beauty of the mountains in the snow.
He knew he’d get to feel. Everything.
“Thank you, universe,” he thought, his eyes closed, “for granting me another day of life.”
Another day to feel. And he wanted to feel everything. Every moment. Every breath. Every heartbeat.
That’s why he had that little glass jar.
So he could remember what it felt like. Remember what it meant. To be alive.
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Mark woke up in 2010, and has been exploring life since then. All his doctors agree. He needs to write.