Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Feat of Strength & The Cast Iron Stove: Grayton Beach 1986

This is from when I returned to Grayton Beach for the first time. I'd landed in the little Florida beach town pretty much by accident in late 1985--worked at a resort in San Destin, then at the Paradise Cafe in Grayton--but had returned to Iowa when the restaurant closed for the season. Back in Des Moines I'd worked for a department store, stockroom and maintenance, but it was just a job to tide me over until I left for somewhere else. And I'd decided that that somewhere else was going to be Eugene, Oregon (I don't know why)--I'd been reading books by Knute Hamsun and Henry Miller and decided I'd go out West with no job and little money and see what happened. But what happened was the chef at the Paradise Cafe called me up at the end of the bleak winter and asked if I wanted to come back to Florida and work for him again. So I went back to Grayton--willingly and happily.
Back in Grayton I saw the same good people and met quite a few new ones. Neither Brock or Matt were there, so it was just me and these new-found friends (Southerners all) and I lived by the beach--on the beach, really--and it was all copacetic. This was when I got my trailer and when I met Pat and her three daughters (and eventually met Tee, who was my undoing that year and for another year to come--though I'm very adept at being my own undoer too). Pat ran a small jewelry shop--hand made--next to the cafe. I think she called herself a goldsmith. I liked Pat. I liked her daughters. They were all a complex and complicated lot, full of life and disaster. But Pat shared her place of business with a photographer--I think her name was Susan--who was a little distant. I was in Grayton without a typewriter (this was before the prevalence of PC's, let alone laptops) and she had one but was reluctant to loan it to me (Pat's idea). But one day, as I was working prep in the kitchen, this big truck pulls up in the sandy road along the cafe and in the back of the truck is a potbellied stove, round and cast iron and heavy. Pat walked into the kitchen and asked if I'd help unload it for Susan the photographer.
I said, "Okay."
The guy who brought the stove and had driven the truck was an old gentleman, he could not move it. I don't know how or who got it in the truck to begin with. Big Daddy Dave--the dishwasher--was working that day and he came out with me to help move the stove/fireplace. Big Daddy was a character all to himself: seventeen, a local boy who lived up by the bay, who attended a special education school, who had attached himself to me because I didn't ridicule him. Anyway, BD Dave came out and we went to the back of the truck where the old southern gentleman had lowered the gate and we took hold of this ancient metal stove. But it was awkward, in both size and shape, in weight, and there was not a good way for two people to grip and carry it, so I said, "I got it."
"Are you sure?" the man asked.
"Yeah, yeah." (But I wasn't that sure.) And I wrapped my arms around this thing--it was about chest-high in the bed of the truck, I was standing in the white loose-sand road, it was a good ten/twenty feet to the door of the shop--and pulled it in close and slipped it out of the truck.
Man, that SOB was heavy. Like lifting the carcass of a hippo. But I was thinking of a co-worker in L.A. who had moved a steel door all by himself, so I sucked it up and squatted a bit, held on and duck-walked this cast iron stove across the sand and thin weeds and into the door of the little shop next to the cafe. Inside I set it down where Susan asked me to, stood up and ironed out my back with my hands. Pat was there, Big Daddy, the old man and Susan and they were all duly amazed. I was amazed and of course egotistically proud (but being a Midwesterner I kept it to myself). I think Susan asked me to move it again--adjust it's location--a bit after I had recovered. No problem. And right after that, she asked if I still wanted to use her typewriter and I said yeah, sure.
It was a small thing, but it was also a bit of myth-making for me--strength and power--a new and tiny story for the denizens of Grayton Beach, for Big Daddy Dave and Pat and my co-workers at the Paradise. It was a test for myself--of strength and will--in a way, and I had passed it. I think of it and I think of how, that same year but in September when I was back in Iowa City and in the Iowa Writer's Workshop (before I dropped out) and I threw my lower back out for the first time in my life while helping someone I didn't even know move a couch. Ouch. It was both a physical and psychological shock to me, to have injured myself so. And then a lifetime of not completely trusting my back again . . . but that's a different story. On that day I was The Strongman of Grayton Beach.
Never did get that typewriter, though. I wrote longhand.

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