Numbers are a random way to measure life. Thirty years on this earth. Thirty days in a month. Thirty days until my next period. Thirty bucks to fill the car. Thirty days of community service. Thirty hours until I surrender to the county sheriff. Thirty days in jail. Thirty big steps and the ocean would swallow me whole.
The DUI didn’t land me the thirty days in jail. The cans of spray paint the cops found in my car did. Jerry pulled me over. He’s the older of my younger brothers. We were having a nice sib-to-sib talk until his partner, Stuck-up Chuck, Myrtle Grove’s finest, walked over to see what was taking so long.
“Oh, it’s my sis, Jean. She’s having car trouble.” Jerry tried to cover for me at the traffic stop. He didn’t want to make me get out of the car. He could smell I was over the limit. Chucky boy swooped his flashlight into my car like a search light calling Batman. Joker’s on you. No beer, no evidence. Then he saw the paint.
“Ma’am, step out of the car, please.”
“Hey, it’s cool, it’s my sister.”
Jerry and Chucky boy had a heated exchange, and Jerry opened my door, head hanging low.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
I refused to blow. Didn’t need a damn device to tell me I was drinking.
“Ma’am, can you tell me why there are spray cans in your possession?”
“Don’t know officer,” I said as soberly as I could manage.
Chucky boy opened the car, snapped on a rubber glove, played an invisible piano scale with his right hand, and rummaged in the back seat.
“Hey, you need a warrant.”
He smirked and gave me the finger. “Actually, I don’t.”
My Jeep Wrangler swallowed his torso. His khaki legs extruded out the door and a pair of silver cuffs swung from the belt buckle loop as the car shimmied like it was supporting some love action.
Five cans of paint: neon yellow, stop-sign red, and coal black. The black was perfect. Low fume, not gloppy, and would arc in a straight stream. Then his cuffs made a crack-click like a fortune cookie breaking as he pulled my hands behind my back and snapped them on my wrists.
The day of the hearing, my lawyer told me to answer yes or no and look remorseful. My pout wasn’t enough. The local news outlets waited in the back of the courtroom to catch sight of me, the Bird Avenger. Some hailed me as a harmless prankster, a frustrated artist. It wasn’t what I would call myself, but it was what they crowned me. Seeing my face on the news reminded me of that weird movie, Birdman that won the Academy Award. Actor Michael Keaton plays a superhero character that’s a bird. He’s typecast as that damn bird. He’s trapped in his birdness until it frees him.
My birdness came from graffiti tags of tiny red birds with yellow beaks like in the Angry Birds game, but with black Xs for eyes. I had covered the CramerChem campus with flocks of them in different sizes. I didn’t have anything personal against CramerChem. I had read a news story how one of their pesticides was killing birds in the Midwest. The poor creatures with bloated, fluffy bodies were dropping out of the sky like the laws of aerodynamics had been altered. My tags looked like a protest. Turns out chemical plants are big business in North Carolina, and the CEO at Cramer didn’t like the publicity.
The first time I tagged the plant was only to see if I could sneak through their lax security. Then it was like an electric thrill. The swoosh of the paint hissing through the valve, the smell of the fumes. Yellow smells different from black, but the same as red. Like glue and rubbing alcohol. Okay, maybe I got a little high from it.
I didn’t expect the news stories, the cheers from the environmentalists, the bird watchers, and beach goers. For the first time in thirty years, I had a voice. The pain I felt from my invisible life flew away. From nothing to something. An anonymous celebrity. Maybe a religious zealot. The faithful feather lovers found a figurehead. Say that three times fast.
“You got off easy,” my lawyer told me. “Thirty hours of community service and thirty days in jail.”
My husband, Steve, didn’t say much about the whole incident. “Well,” he nodded his head, “I’ll be here for you when it’s over.” It was a version of the that’s nice and a shrug I got when I was seventeen and told my mother I was marrying him.
My emerging criminality gave Steve a little thrill though. He had a bit more pep in bed these past thirty days. The only question he asked was, “How’d they know it was you?”
“The booking photo.”
His eyebrows squished into a confused V.
I pulled my hair into a pony tail, the way I had it the night I was pulled over. At the base of my skull, near my right ear, was a tattoo of a tiny red bird with a yellow beak. Someone smarter than Chucky boy connected the dots.
Steve ran his thumb over the bird and laughed. “How long have you had that?”
“Two and a half years.” Thirty months. He had never noticed. I allowed needles to push ink into my skin, to create a permanent red tide pool on my head. I don’t remember it hurting. Another part of my body seeking and failing to connect with the world around me.
I wasn’t worried about going to jail. It was comforting. If you don’t show up, someone notices. The government would care. I was expected, and they were waiting. If I were lucky, I’d be done before my next period, I quipped to Steve. He laughed.
Then it would be back to nothing from something. Only Steve, and if I were lucky, my job back at the grocery store. Not much work for felons. I couldn’t earn a living as an artist. Though I had learned a few spray paint tricks.
I completed the community service first. For thirty days, I donned an orange safety vest with a reflective stripe and picked up trash and fixed fences at the beach. Maybe I should have protested the tourists and the sewage plant that spewed all manner of personal items onto the sand and into the tide pools of limpets and crabs.
After my last shift, I shed my kicks and drew a bird in the wet sand with my big toe. I squished it hard at the eye with my pinky toe to keep the size right. Water bubbled up a thank you as if it were a genie being released from a bottle. Magic from nothing to something. Then just as quick, the bubble soaked back into the beach.
I considered my bare feet, now free of my community service. Why can’t you feel much on the bottoms? If you run across the hot sidewalk, you’ll feel the scorch, but not the roughness of the concrete. On the beach, the sand feels cold and wet, but it won’t give you the willies the way a spider web stuck to your hand does.
Maybe it’s more about the beach than the feet. The edge of the world. Imagine coming from someplace in the Midwest, orderly tracts of crops in a hopscotch of rectangles that leapfrog from farm to sea. You shuffle your unsuspecting toes into the tingling cold Atlantic as they are submerged by the choppy gray, white-tipped waves. The water’s whooshing, swirls over you for the first time. Would confronting the end of the Earth be liberating, like an escape? Or a farce – that’s it. I think of these options – all the time. I could walk into the tide and escape my sentence. But I can’t swim. I never learned. That’s one more of the many mistakes I’ve made in my thirty years.
I count thirty big steps away from the tide and scuff my feet in the dry silty sand watching them turn from something wet to nothing dry, back to feet. Jeanie would be out of the bottle in thirty days.