James Simpson

ONE SMALL STEP

Tangie Barlow was born at Woodstock in that summer of '69. There, on Max Yasgur's farm, in a medical tent mere yards from a muddy bog and a line of Port-O-Lets, she came bleating into the world to the sound of Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane shouting "Good morning, people!" before the band launched into "Volunteers."

"She'll be 'Tangerine Darjeeling Basmati Barlow," Rusty had proclaimed in honor of their diet for the previous week, which mostly consisted of citrus, tea, and rice.

"The first two sound good, but 'Basmati'?" Breeze gasped. "What happened to 'Rayne' like we talked about?"

"It just came to me, honey, isn't it great?" His long red hair fell in limp ribbons across his face.

"No."

So she became Tangerine Rayne Barlow, raised as a nomad traveling the New England arts festival circuit with Rusty and Breeze.

A talented artist, but a rather distracted and distant parent, Rusty Barlow made batik clothing and tapestries inside the family's bright silver Airstream trailer. Breeze sold Shiatsu massages on a table under a canvas awning, always located next to a black poster tacked to the trailer's outer hull. The poster showed acupressure points on the white outline of a man's body. Tangie often felt sorry for the man in the poster; he looked eternally surprised and anxious with so many lines and dots pointing at him, an unwilling spaceman against a backdrop of constellations, shooting stars, tiny planets and moons.

Rusty and Breeze made a modest living together—his creations popular among tourists and suburban daytrippers, her talents sought out by weary travelers stiff after a day of bargain hunting. Batiking, though, was an arduous process as Rusty applied paraffin wax to handpainted designs on cloth, allowed it to cool, soaked the material in vegetable dye, dried it, heated and removed the wax, applied more wax to different areas of the cloth and finally dyed it another color. He would finish by sponging the piece clean with kerosene, which revealed stunning and intricate designs in deep blue, crimson, amber, emerald. But at the end of the day the work left Rusty's hands perpetually stained dark brown or black.

"Don't forget to wash up, Daddy." Tangie would say.

"But I'm an artistic farmer," Rusty would say, smiling slowly. "And the liquid dyes are my soil." Tangie always laughed while holding her nose away from his kerosene-scented overalls.

When Tangie was six, they drove to the Georgia coast to spend the summer with Breeze's widowed mother, Doris, at her house on Tybee Island. Business on the circuit had been dwindling for nearly a year, and they were quickly running out of money.

Doris lived a block away from the beach in a rambling, weathered gray, two-story clapboard with dormer windows, a large sitting porch, and dark hardwood floors that creaked when Tangie walked on them, reminding her of an old wooden ship.

The island seemed becalmed in an ocean unto itself, apart from the rest of the world. There were no high-rise condos here, only post-war mom-and-pop motels, greasy spoons, tiny antique shops and funky clothing boutiques along the quiet three-mile beach of sand dunes and sea oats. It was an underdeveloped barrier island with a lighthouse on its northern tip, and further west on the inland side, among scrub pine and palmetto bushes, a civil war fort—Pulaski—with century-old craters in its outer walls from Union cannon fire.

One windy day the Barlows walked to the island's lighthouse. Tangie and Breeze climbed to the top, while Rusty, highly acrophobic, remained on the ground content to poke inside the base of the light and peer at old items in glass display cases. There was a scratchy woolen keeper's uniform from the late nineteenth century, its dark blue, roughhewn cloth stretched tight over a dressmaker's dummy, and a matching cap on the shelf above. It resembled something from the civil war and looked hot and uncomfortable. Several sepiatone photographs showed the lighthouse from different angles and eras, some taken from atop the lighthouse. Rusty quickly glanced away from these. In the corner, he spotted a tabletop diorama of the entire lighthouse complex encased in glass. There was a tiny Head Keeper's house at the entrance overlooking the bright blue painted ocean at one end, and the black and white striped lighthouse at the opposite end. Other buildings faced each other across a small lawn of green moss: a summer kitchen, an old garage, the two Assistant Keepers' houses, and a supply building.

Rusty jumped as someone screamed from high above. It was Breeze, screaming out Tangie's name. Instinctively, he ran for the stairs that spiraled up into blackness, but instead he turned and sprinted out the door. A fat, sunburned couple hovered over Tangie sitting on the ground, as they patted and grabbed at her. More tourists rushed past him, crowding around while Tangie stood up, strange arms and hands supporting her. She smiled at Rusty and waved, her straight dark hair flapping beside her like a flag.

"I'm okay, Daddy. It was neat, I floated!"

Breeze's frantic wails echoed from inside the lighthouse, her sandals clanging down the metal stairs. The fat couple hugged his daughter, stroking her arms and legs, amazed that she was unhurt. She beamed at them, breathing hard, her eyes wild and glowing. Rusty stood and stared, and it seemed forever before Breeze burst from the lighthouse and ran to hug Tangie. Only then did he go to them, glancing up at the towering lighthouse, holding on.

* * *

Tangie discovered that on certain days, when the wind was just right, she felt lighter than usual and could float down—never up—from places. First she jumped from the front porch and glided softly to the ground, her bare feet brushing the grass. She learned that by holding her body stiff, and arching her back with arms outstretched slightly behind her, she could glide left or right on descent. She could also stay afloat longer by moving her arms and legs as if treading water. All this, of course, depended on the atmosphere, which she felt instinctively attuned to, and would never attempt a float when it didn't feel right. After six months she was able to jump out of the attic window and land quietly on the lawn ten seconds later.

It was usually a private game for her, something she knew her parents weren't comfortable with, especially Rusty. Occasionally he would round the corner of the house or drive up in the Bronco just as she alighted on the ground, and he would stop short, startled, then turn away shaking his head. Breeze, though, would simply take Tangie's hand and whisper, "Don't do that so much, okay?"

Just before he left for good, Rusty began making weekend trips in the Bronco up the coast to the lowlands of South Carolina, ostensibly investigating the art scene in Charleston, but with each trip staying away from his family for lengthier stretches.

The day after he told Breeze he wasn't coming back, Tangie sat in the trailer watching her mother set up the massage table.

"Will Daddy ever come back?" she said to the folded hands in her lap.

"It's very complicated, honey."

Tangie knew some of it. Once she had heard Rusty say, "I feel so restless, like I need to move on."

"Is that the best you can do?" Breeze had replied. "I know you're an artist, and I was warned, but can you be a man, too? What about Tangie?"

The words still echoed in Tangie's head, but now Breeze acted as if Tangie hadn't heard their conversation. "Your father just had a tough time dealing with things," Breeze said.

"You mean things like my floating?"

"No, it's not that at all."

"Grandma says he needs to grow up, but I don't think she's right, because he's already grown up, isn't he?"

"He has to grow inside, is what she meant. But none of this is your fault, so I don't ever want you to feel that it is." She knelt beside Tangie and hugged her. "We'll be fine, don't worry."

"Okay, Mommy," she said, tears tumbling onto her cheeks. "But how will he live out there without us?"

Had he taken the trailer, Tangie could have imagined him quietly batiking inside its silver hulk somewhere up north, then displaying his creations and sitting in the lawn chair awaiting customers. But as it was, she saw him disappearing, his hair blazing about his sad face as he drove off into the distance, his features becoming slowly more grainy and formless with each mile he put between them.

* * *

They moved the trailer to the far end of the back yard, and Breeze gave massages and did acupuncture for the locals, most of whom eyed her striking face, long dark hair and exotic figure with interest. More than one local man paid for a massage hoping for something more, but only one got it.

He was an illustrator of children's storybooks staying for the winter just over the bridge in Savannah.

One night Breeze came home tipsy and flushed after a date with the illustrator. Excited and unable to sleep, she woke Tangie (who only pretended to be asleep) and they sat on the grass in the back yard and looked up at the night sky, listening to the waves breaking on the beach across the street.

"Do you remember what the man in the moon's left eye is called?" asked Breeze.

"The Sea of Trankillity. It's where the astronauts landed."

"Tranquility, that's right."

"I remember that from when I was born."

"That happened a month before you came out, silly."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot."

Tangie smiled and looked up at her mother's lustrous cheek, following her wild dark eyes to the moon.

"Everybody has one of their own." Breeze reached over and placed two fingers on Tangie's chest at the center of her breastbone, pressing gently. "Here's your Sea of Tranquility."

"I know, you showed me before."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot." She elbowed Tangie and they both laughed.

"Tell me the seas again, Mommy."

"Well, in massage there's the Sea of Tranquility, of course, which relieves anxiety and depression like when you're scared or sad; the Sea of Vitality," her fingers moved to the right of Tangie's spine, at her lower back, "for back aches and fatigue, when you're tired from playing too hard; and, your favorite, the Sea of Energy," she placed her fingers just below Tangie's belly button, "for constipation and gas, when you've eaten too much candy!"

They rolled together on the grass, giggling into the cool night air.

"Dan's coming over for lunch tomorrow," said Breeze. "You should see the awesome pictures he's been working on."

"I think he looks like a bird."

"Really?" Breeze smiled, then nodded. "Well, yeah, I guess he looks rather like a stork with those long legs of his. But he's such a nice guy, and he likes you a lot."

"Is he grown up inside?" Tangie peered up at the moon, trying to see the face or the bunny ears.

"I'd bet on it," said Breeze.

* * *

After lunch the next day, Tangie, Breeze, her mother, and Dan sat on the porch in white wicker chairs.

"Did you do all these?" asked Tangie, holding the sketchbook Dan was working on for a collection of original fairy tales.

"I sure did. What do you think? Don't hold back, now, give me your honest opinion, I can take it." Everyone laughed except Tangie.

She slowly turned the pages, her eyes moving from the drawings, then to Dan, and back again. She liked the wispy, playful quality of the sketches, each one full of sprites, elves, fairies and gnomes. They seemed to blow across the page as if helped along by some invisible energy. One looked like Tinkerbell, wings and all, fluttering from a tall striped tower.

"They're not bad," she muttered, closing the book.

"I'll just have to try harder." Dan flashed her a big smile and winked. The chairs creaked under the shifting weight of their bodies.

"I'm real sorry I never got to meet your husband," Dan said to Breeze's mother, Doris.

"Yes, he was a fine man. Loved being the Head Keeper." She shook her head. "A shame, though, all those years working the light, then falls off the roof—at home! Silly way to go, just for some loose shingles."

Tangie knew her grandmother couldn't have helped him even if she wanted to; she had lost the ability years ago. Breeze never possessed it, but Tangie did and it seemed a rather useless talent now, especially when she thought of her grandfather falling helplessly, calling out for someone, anyone, clawing at thin air. She wished she had been around to teach him how to float, although she wasn't even sure if it could be taught.

"I really should be shoving off if I'm going to make my flight," Dan said standing, shoulders high in the porch.

"Hope we see you before next year," said Doris, "and good luck with your book. I know you'll do just fine."

"I'll be back from time to time, depending on how things go in New York." He bent down before Tangie. "It was great seeing you again. I'll work on my drawing skills; maybe next time you'll like my stuff better." Then, he moved closer and whispered in her ear. "Don't float away while I'm gone."

Tangie grinned. She wanted to tell him it was okay, that she couldn't float up and away. She liked Dan. She liked his crazy, curly black hair, and the way he smiled at her as if he knew and trusted her completely; she sensed no underlying melancholy, nothing dark or sinister under the surface. What she saw was what he was. And he smelled nice.

* * *

To Tangie's delight Dan returned year after year. Every winter for five years he would occupy a small one-bedroom apartment off Pulaski Square to paint and draw. It was set back from the street, had its own shady courtyard and a terrace with a view of a large oak tree in the square. Sketches and painted canvases nearly filled every space inside the apartment and out onto the terrace where Dan did most of his work.

Tangie and Breeze would sit with him sometimes while he worked before they all went out for lunch or a walk through the quiet squares. Tangie watched his long, thin fingers darting about over his work with charcoal or pencil, the images flowing from his hand, blooming into fantastic scenes inside fairytale landscapes populated by paper-thin creatures among thick, towering trees and castles. On some he would return more slowly, deliberately, with oil or acrylic, his hand gliding back over the images with emerald green, cobalt blue, crimson, warm ochre, indigo, colors vaguely familiar to Tangie from the days on the road with her father, but infused with a different energy. She could feel Dan's paintings and drawings smiling at her, embracing her.

* * *

Tangie blossomed as five more winters passed, her floating episodes mostly a thing of the past, relegated to happy memory—and no word from Rusty, not even a postcard. Breeze continued to give massages, but had moved from the trailer to a small storefront along the strand at the south end of the beach. Dan continued his winter stays, and Breeze flew to New York to see him once or twice each summer. Still, she had other boyfriends on the island and never seemed to be without a date, but of them all Tangie liked Dan the best and often asked her mother why they didn't just get married, or move in together, be it north or south.

I'm happy with things as they are, Breeze always responded.

* * *

Tangie felt dizzy and strange on the day of her first real date at fifteen. At first she thought she might be starting her period, but then she was overcome with a intense lightness that was the exact opposite of the way she felt during her monthly flow. It was almost as if she could float at any moment—up.

Her date picked her up in his mother's blue Plymouth Satellite, and Tangie buckled herself in and held on, the buoyancy intensifying as they crossed the bridge to Savannah.

"Neil, would you mind terribly if we skipped the restaurant?"

"Uh, no, I guess that's okay, if you want. Aren't you hungry?"

"Maybe we could drive around for a bit, get some air."

Neil drummed his fingers on the wheel and glanced at her as she stared out the window.

"I know!" Tangie grinned. "Let's go to the A&W out by the mall."

"You'd rather go to an A&W than the seafood place on River Street? I brought plenty of money, honest."

"Come on, it'll be fun. It's a nice night, we'll sit in the car and they'll bring us our food." She felt the shoulder belt tugging slightly across her pink blouse, pressing against her breasts, the lap belt pushing on her skirt. She tightened her grip on the door handle. "It's one of those old drive-ins. We can talk."

"Fun," Neil mumbled.

Tangie did most of the talking, mainly to keep her mind off of the new floating sensation, and partly because Neil seemed nervous. While they ate he bounced back and forth between the same topics: his part-time job at the grocery store, his wrestling meets, and the classic '68 Camaro he and his father were restoring.

"How about we go to the Starlight drive-in?" Tangie said. "They're showing old sci-fi movies."

"The drive-in?" Neil perked up. "That sounds interesting."

"We can talk some more."

He sank back down. "You're nice and all, but kinda weird, you know that?"

"Yeah, I know."

At the drive-in, during The Day The Earth Stood Still, the floating sensation subsided enough for Tangie to unbuckle herself and walk to the bathroom. Neil relaxed a bit too, and even gave her a rose he bought from a woman walking car-to-car selling flowers from a big tin bucket.

"Do you really think I'm weird?" Tangie asked.

"No. Unusual, maybe."

Tangie frowned.

"I mean that in a good way. You're not like everybody else."

"Would you think I was crazy if I told you I feel lighter than air?"

Neil squinted at her. "Are you high right now or what?"

"No, stupid," she gave his shoulder a shove. "Earlier today I thought I could float. Off the ground and into the air like a helium balloon."

"Cool. I knew this girl in Michigan when I was growing up who could do that."

"No way!"

"Yeah, really. In the third grade this girl named Tracy—everyone called her 'Spacey Tracy'—"

"Oh, great, now you think I'm nuts."

"No! You're fine. She was nuts. Anyway, Tracy and I would be playing in her back yard—she had this really big treehouse her dad built—and sometimes she would step off the top of the ladder and float down to the ground like she was on a wire or something."

"Didn't you think it was odd?"

"Nah. She didn't do it very much, said her mom and dad got mad at her. Then the next year she told me she couldn't do it at all, even if she wanted to."

"Yeah," Tangie whispered. "That's right."

"So you float like Tracy?"

"When I was a kid I could, but not anymore. It's different, like I said."

"That's wild."

"Did you think she was nuts back then?"

"Who, Tracy? Not really. I kinda liked her, actually. It just made her, you know, special."

"You're not freaked out by this?"

"I figure everyone has a hidden talent: juggling swords, tying cherry stems into a knot with your tongue, reciting songs backwards, having a photographic memory."

"That's one way to look at it. So, what's your hidden talent?"

"Well, it's kinda stupid." He paused, scratching the tip of his nose.

"Come on, spill it."

"Alright. Umm, I write poems about the people I bag groceries for at work."

"My God, you're a closet poet?"

"Floater!" They both laughed.

* * *

When Tangie got home later that night her grandmother was waiting for her in the living room drinking tea and reading a book.

"How was it?"

Tangie sat next to Doris on the couch. "It was...difficult at first, but we finally relaxed and had a good time. He's really sweet, and has the cutest curly blonde hair."

"Well, I'm glad you had fun, that's what counts. Was he a gentleman?"

"Of course," said Tangie. "I wish Mom had been here too. Do you think she'll call?"

"She did, right before you got home. Said they've been going to all kinds of parties up at the conference. She'll call you tomorrow and wants all the details about your date."

"It still would have been nice if she was here."

Doris put her arm around Tangie. "I know it's tough, but your mother does the best she can. She's just trying to be happy."

"Do you remember when I was little? When we first came here?"

"Like it was yesterday, dear."

Tangie hesitated a moment. "And that special thing I used to do?"

"Yes, that too," Doris smiled.

"I feel really strange lately, like I might start doing it again." She pointed up and paused to gauge her grandmother's reaction. "Did you feel like that when you were my age?"

Doris sipped her tea and thought a moment.

"Well, I recall being simply giddy for a day or two before my time of the month. I felt so light and excited that I thought I might drift away with the slightest breeze."

"Did you ever do it? I mean, just to see what would happen, did you ever . . . let go?"

"No, I never did," she said. "I only experienced it for a few days each month during the summer I was sixteen, and when I finally got up enough nerve to try, the feeling was gone."

"It just stopped?"

"Faded, really; replaced by different feelings." She patted Tangie's hand. "You'll see, dear."

Tangie said goodnight, trudged upstairs and climbed into bed, her room thick with moonlight. She pictured Dan and her mom dancing in the mountains of upstate New York, stars twinkling and swirling about them. Two heavenly bodies. She closed her eyes and tried to see her lost father's face, tried to imagine where he was in the world, but the silver light pierced her eyelids, washing out even the smallest image she could conjure up, infusing everything, pouring over and spilling into her body, filling every part of her until she wanted to laugh out loud or scream.

She slipped out of bed and crept to the window, gazing at the brilliant full moon reflected in the rippling ocean. She opened the window and crawled onto the roof. The shingles seemed to undulate beneath her feet like liquid sandpaper, and a soft wind fluttered about her nightgown and brushed the hair across her face. She searched far out over the water for the horizon, seeking the lightless void where the ocean's silvery blackness met the deepest ink of the sky, and stared at it until she felt the cool night air caress the soles of her feet.

* * *

James Simpson is a writer and graphic artist living in the Atlanta metro area. His work has appeared recently in Big City Lit.

"One Small Step" copyright © 2002 by James Simpson.