KEY WEST, MARCH 2015 I took her hand and stiffened my arm so she’d have something solid to lean on. The uneven dock planks presented endless trip hazards for that right leg and foot that drag a little. Cindy had a stroke when she was 35. She’s giving it her all so not to hold up the line of tourists behind us. Once on the boat I get her to a bench, then gather our snorkels, masks, and fins. The boat is full and festive as we head south of the southern most point in America, toward Cuba. The sky is blue, the ocean is beautiful. Several times I watch her as she’s looking out across the water, her short, dark hair fluttering in the breeze off a tanned forehead. Her impassive, intent expression reminds me of our father. Nine miles out we reach the world’s 3rd largest reef, and anchor. As we don our gear, she smiles at me, “I may be the “pimp with the limp” on land, but in the water, we’re all equal again.”
Somewhere in the buoyancy and rhythm of the waves, the limp is released and she swims easily.
That night we link up with my musician and author friends at The Smoking Tuna to listen to one of my group, guitarist Chris Clifton. While Chris and his 4-piece band rip through several decades of American blues and R & B, we settle at a table with Shari Smith, an author from North Carolina and singer-songwriter Eric Erdman from Mobile. When Cindy shakes Eric’s hand, the large screen print of a pistol on his t-shirt, a shirt promoting the band The Mulligan Brothers, captures her attention. I suppose a time will come with the image of a gun won't send her mind to dark places, but not yet. Still, she quickly falls into conversation and makes easy friends. Always has. When our group heads toward the Hog’s Breath to hear another group of friends, The Carter Brothers, Cindy is too tired to continue. I put her in a taxi to her hotel.
Three years older than me, Cindy was a best buddy and confidant in my childhood, the one who babied and defended me and included me in her games. We were the youngest two of four kids. When we were small, folks sometimes brushed the bangs off my forehead with the palm of their hand and said, “See? Kurt and Cindy look exactly alike.” We did.
Once when I was perhaps 12, past the time when a cute, shapely girl of 14 or 15 would still look out for her kid brother, I was being bullied by an older, bigger kid a couple blocks from our house. He had me by the arm, explaining how he was “gonna kick my ass,” when Cindy came down the sidewalk headed home. He’d seen her coming and had time to lower his voice. Cindy flirted with the boy, chatting him up, batting her eyelashes and flipping the hair off her shoulder, enough to distract him. I got home with my “ass” intact.
For the next 43 years she's come to my aid or defense every single time I needed her. Sometimes when I didn’t know I needed her. When she was home from college and I got in a fight over a girl, she dropped what she was doing and spent her evening with me. When I was building furniture to pay for college and she was graduated with her first good-paying job, she hired me to build a bedroom suite. At the publication of my first book, she sent a copy to Oprah, insistent on getting me in Oprah's book club. When my marriage fell apart a few years ago, she was my ready supporter.
|Me and Cindy at the Oldest House in Key West|
Fine with me. The pimp with the limp is always welcome.
Friday the 13th, fifteen months ago, 6:30 p.m., I was walking into an Italian restaurant in Ft. Wayne when my phone rang. The screen image said it was Cindy, in Florida. I answer and she’s screaming. Her husband had killed himself! She’d come home from work and found him in a chair beside the pool, the gun still in his hand. She was in the driveway, hysterical, waiting for the police.
Sixteen hours later I was at her house, at the place where Jeff had killed himself, cleaning the pool and repairing things that got damaged with Jeff’s friend Phil. The two of us scoured Jeff’s computer, his job search notes, the stack of mail and magazines on the kitchen table, looking for a note, a clue, anything. Our goal was to make the house look completely normal before Cindy returned. If there was something upsetting to find, we were going to find it before she did. I started to pick up the shirt Jeff had laid over a chair before he went out to the pool last night, and the shoes he’d kicked off at the sliding door, but Phil stopped me. “She needs to touch those things,” he whispered. “She needs to start processing what happened here last night. Putting away his stuff is probably a good place to start.”
Phil is a long-haired, motorcycle-riding contractor, and a very smart man.
About 24 hours later, as Cindy and her grown daughter and I were running errands, trying to plan a funeral, we got notice that our father had died, back home in Indiana.
It is 15 months since that tragic weekend, and as I greet people and sign books on the lawn of The Oldest House in Key West, Cindy sits nearby, her body language is easy, relaxed. We talk with a woman who lost her husband just a few weeks earlier. Cindy offers comfort without getting emotional. In that conversation I can see how she’s healed. It’s been a long road, and she’s still on it, but she shares from her loss, commiserates and makes another quick friend.
The next night as I read on stage, surrounded by musicians and other authors, I can see Cindy’s face in the audience, smiling back at me.
Later that night, it’s creeping toward 1:00. We’re at the Hog’s Breath and several drinks into the night. The Carter Brothers are cranking through Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road. Tim Carter is banging on his mandolin, sounding like a guitar being slammed into a church bell. A little group of women have taken to the dance floor. Cindy raises here arms and grooves easily into the crowd. Somewhere in the buoyancy and rhythm of the music her limp is released and she dances without a struggle. She’s found yet another place where we’re all equal again.
Buy a copy of Kurt's book, "Noblesville"
Buy a copy of Kurt's book, "Noblesville"