Till Death Do Us Part.

We had spent the entire Fall building our jumps.
Four total at that point.
The main lip dug about six feet under sea level, we’d hit the water table often.
You’d dip down into the ditch, fire off the lip and land six feet above.

Reminiscing, I can’t believe they lasted long.
For starters, the land was private property.
Beyond that, our massive holes with accompanying mounds were in plain view, adjacent to a major highway.

It was a vacant lot hugging the entrance to one of the most popular pizza restaurants in North Tampa.
Customers loved us.
No pads, no helmets.
Filthy we were after eating shit in the dirt.
A carnival act free to watch as kids snacked on their gourmet pizza.

On that Sunday, our whole gang was waist deep, shovels in hand, breaking old ground.
Months prior, after our first week of trespass, two managers from the parlor approached us.
We thought for certain things were getting shut down.
Instead, and much to our surprise, they complimented us on our work.
On our daily dedication: to maintenance of both the jumps and the lot they were built into.
Tedious, we cleaned everything we laid down.
They mentioned how much their employees enjoyed watching us ride.
On smoke break, the preppers, the waiters and servers wandered from the back of the building to stare over the hedges at the action.

We introduced ourselves.
All eight of us.
Minutes worth of small talk: what we did, who we were.
Some of us lied to protect our identities.
Then we broke away to continue digging before sundown.

Within ten minutes, one of the managers returned.
Kim was her name.
She brought a couple pizzas and drinks to share.
For once, we didn’t feel like delinquents.

If only she’d have known how much that meant to us.
Grandpa Joe was a big man.
He pounded a six-pack of NABS every afternoon.
All that sugar caked in his gut. His barrel chest showing it.
Grandma cut him off years prior in so many ways, with so many things.
Alcohol was first on the list.
That non-alcoholic barley water was his refuge.

Grandpa Joe was a genius.
A musician, a contractor, a math savant.
In retirement, he conjured just about every idea to make extra loot.
He made fruit sorbet. For years he created product displays for the local Bodegas.
In the mid 90’s he was heavy into artificial plant arrangements.

His life’s blood was to stay in motion. Creating.
His aura, his productivity set a benchmark at the house.
But that pressure to produce huddled me in a corner.
Me, a perpetual underachiever. A child.
Me, inept.
But even more so, apathetic.
School ended at 2:45pm.
By 3:30 I was home.
By 4:15 I had made my daily grilled cheese–no butter, just partially melted slices between two pieces of Wonder Bread.
Soon after, I was out the door, well on my way to pedalling twenty minutes to the jumps.
We all met there, every day, the whole crew. Such was our daily routine.

On weekends it was an all day event.
We’d stay out late each night, and with little sleep, wake early and dig.
Early meant there was still dew on the ground.
The grass maintaining moisture underneath the topsoil, keeping the Florida sugar sand malleable.
By noon, the sun would beat down at full force, drying our dirt.
Once dry, it cracks. Once ridden on by rubber tires for an afternoon, it turns into dust.

On weekends the parlor was slammed.
One in particular, a Saturday night, their entire prep and cleaning crew bailed.
Kim returned, and in desperation asked if any of us were interested in a job.
We were young and industrious.
But more importantly, dispensable with no money on hand.
Perfect candidates.

But I was too arrogantly punk.
The family restaurant, too cliché.
As they went to work–their first jobs–I remained in the ditches in the afternoon, slinging dirt.
The local Hungry Howies had a help wanted sign in the window.
I opened the screen door to their heat pit. Ovens cooking their unprecedented amount of signature Howie Breads.
It was a yellow and black mosaic shit hole: much more my speed.
Metallica blasting on a silver Samsung radio, cacophonous above the fans wafting heat and onion out the door.
And the employees: a cast of metal-heads with hair pulled back into pony tails.
It was anarchy, but with food.
I was hired on the spot.

Training commenced after the assistant manager finished his joint.
With no preface to what they needed from me, with no such working my way up,
he slid out a shelf of pizza dough.
Pulling the cellophane back, he flopped the tan paddy on the table and began kneading the edges.
It moved outward quickly, reaching toward the boundaries of the pan, taking shape, amoeba-like.
The stoner picked it up, by balancing the dough on the tip of his finger, he spun it into the air.
Surreal, almost epic was his technique.
Once the dough landed, perfect to shape on the pan, it was ready to be dressed.

With weed–like the smell of burning trash–emanating from his hair, I was told to repeat what I had witnessed.
And he walked away.

I fumbled with the dough.
My fingers felt square and disconnected.
My coordination mis-firing.
My muscle memory having no recollection of the culinary miracle I had just witnessed.

After working the dough for ten minutes, I had somehow compressed it into a ball.
Somehow I had moved backwards.
Embarrassed by my ineptitude, I tossed it into the garbage.
Pulling another pile of dough off the cookie sheet, I began again.

After some time, the manager returned to witness progress.
His eyes bloodshot.
His shorts splattered with old paint, his black wrestling boots brindled white with flour.
Two hours into my first job, with a trash can full of sixteen blobs of pizza dough, I was told to leave.

‘You can keep my paycheck,’
I muttered as I walked out the screen door.
Although the lot was sparse with shade, it served just enough to keep direct sunlight at bay.
Towards late afternoon, the shadows turned everything a warm shade of orange.
This was our witching hour: cool, with perfect lighting.
We rode until the crew locked up their bikes and went to work.

It was that Sunday afternoon when Brent rolled up in his white, late 80’s Puegot.
Freshly detailed.
He too had gotten a job, and with it, a new car, a new girlfriend.

Brent rolled down his window, the A/C pushing full output, cooling even the outside of his car.
‘There’s an ambulance at the house. Your mom asked me to come get you.’

Stashing my bike under some bushes, I stepped into the passenger’s seat and was enveloped by the acidic,
lemon scent of upholstery cleaner.
We sped off, winding back into the neighborhood.

Cutting down side streets, we drove under the oaks arching over old Carrollwood.
This was the artery to everywhere we pedaled on bikes.
Calming through our habit of repetition.

In Brent’s car, there was no physical act.
I sat back, my conscience blank.
In constant ‘flight’ mode I felt nothing.
Empty: the easiest way to cope.

On getting home, I wasn’t prepared for the sight of my Grandpa Joe.
The ambulance doors open.
He, being lifted inside on a stretcher.
A lump under a sheet, his head sticking out from the top.
And the doors finally closing, consuming him.

To witness him being taken to the hospital, his appendages littered with blood clots.
To imagine both of his legs amputated on his arrival there.
For him to die amongst strangers.
Brent delivered me back to our jumps.
The sun had set and I could see my friends through the windows of the restaurant.
Their hustle on high, making due.

Finding my way through the dark, I dropped down into the pits.
With calloused hands I wrapped a tight grip around a shovel.
And I began to dig.

My short-lived job: weak, minimal evidence to my grandfather that I wasn’t a failure.
Lackluster at life, a bum.

But this small creation–that plot of throw away land, consuming our time, our energy–soothed our angst.
That precious dirt justified our inconsequence.
And unlike everything else, made our lives, as teens, palatable.

I dug well into the darkness.

Matt Coplon

Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.