Sunday, December 11, 2011

Seeing possibilities again

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An apartment in the reddish-pink stucco house at 606 W. Cedar St., Rawlins, Wyo., was the first home my wife, Lisa, and I shared as husband and wife, the first place that we, as a couple, called home.

It was less than a block from the Rawlins Daily Times, where I worked and where I had met Lisa about a year earlier. At some point, this house had been converted into two or three apartments, and the landlord, a friend of Lisa’s parents, had rented to us the rather large unit in back. It was the only one with direct access to the backyard.

The home was old and kind of beat up, yet it had an exotic appeal that reminded me of haciendas I had seen during a trip to Mexico in the spring of 1979.

Huge chunks of petrified wood, probably harvested from the Seminoe Reservoir area before doing so was outlawed, were cemented into place here and there in the yard, where they served as adornments — they were such a dark, rich shade of red brown that at times they seemed black. I often wondered who first built this house, and how long ago. Perhaps it had never been a house at all but a business that eventually had been converted into apartments. The backyard overlooked a parking lot on Front Street, after all, which in the late 1800s, when the Union Pacific was king, had been the town’s major thoroughfare. Now, Cedar Street marked the heart of the downtown. The railroad still dominated in many ways, but no longer for passenger travel, mail delivery or local freight.

An 8- or 10-foot wall started on the eastern side of the building and jutted out to the property line, where it turned 90 degrees and ran south to fence in the backyard. The wall was the same reddish-pink color as the building, and an arched entrance in front marked the start of the walkway leading into the backyard — and to the door of our apartment.

I would spend a good portion of my weekends our first summer there working in that back yard. When we moved in, it was mostly a gray dirt area with no grass and spindly, 3-foot-tall weeds growing sparsely here and there. A thick mat of cottonwood and poplar leaves lined the base of the wall. Tumbleweeds had piled up in the very back where the wind had lodged them between the rear wall of the property and a stone-walled cabana, its roof covered with the clay, Spanish tiles favored in southwestern architecture.

As I completed the cleanup, I filled bag after bag with weeds, leaves and aged beer bottles and other debris. But one of the weeds I’d tanked out of the soil had bared the edge of a large, flat stone, and I was determined to get it out of the soil — the next step was to prepare the soil for grass seed. It soon became apparent this stone was much larger than I’d believed.

So I got down on my hands and knees and started to uncover its edges as I tried to gauge its size. At some point in the excavation, I realized this slab of rock was a flagstone nearly the size of a card table and in the neighborhood of 2 inches thick. So I completely unearthed it, thinking this could be a nice adornment for the yard on which I was working. That’s when I uncovered another, which led to another, and another, and yet more. I no longer recall just how many of these stones I uncovered, but they once had served as a walkway from the front of the building to the old cabana at the back of the lot.

So after completely digging up the ancient stones, I decided to re-create the original walkway. Painstakingly I dug out a place for each stone, tamped the soil flat before laying the stone in place and starting on the next one. I worked tirelessly, knowing intuitively each step I needed to take, what I wanted to accomplish, even seeing in my mind’s eye what it would look like when I finished.

One weekend as I worked, the landlord stopped by. His name was Dick Holden, a plainspoken man who was at a point in his life where he had tales to tell, stories to share — either that, or he and I simply shared a penchant for jawing. But I hardly had lived my life yet and so had few tales to tell. Instead, I usually listened, throwing in my two cents now and then when he asked me to; but on this day, he did not have a lot to say. He simply was impressed.

“You got it all cleaned up,” he said.

“Yup,” I replied.

“How’d you know about the flagstones? Those have been under the dirt so long I’d forgotten they were there,” he said. I explained how I’d stumbled across the first one after pulling a weed.

Dick went on to describe how those flagstones once marked a plush lawn that served as the carpet for family gatherings, garden parties, perhaps even a wedding or two. While he never said so, I got the impression that perhaps, just perhaps a much younger Dick Holden has spent some part of his younger days in this yard, whether as a kid growing up or perhaps even as a young man starting out on his own.

I had imagined the plush lawn he mentioned as I replanted each of those dozen or so flagstones. It was easy for me to envision some of the scenes he described.

It really was amazing how years of neglect had hidden the gems in this now dirt yard. All that had been needed was a little ambition, some elbow grease, an imagination.

And Dick’s memory of how it had been.

It’s funny how life is like that. Some will see a beat up old house where others will imagine how that house once stood in its glory, and they go to work to restore it. An architect will look at an old stone factory building that is beyond adaptation for further industrial uses and imagine luxury loft condos, and the site will return to a resemblance of its former glory, even though its use has turned 180 degrees.

Friday, more than a year after I was laid off and after many twists, turns and dead ends, I was interviewed for a job. During the talk, I began to get a vision for what this work could be, how I might fit into the efforts of this particular employer, and as I imagined what might be, I began to see possibilities, and that is something I have not seen clearly for months.

Nothing is decided, but I’ve been asked for another interview, and I walk forward with an encouragement and a sense of renewal I’ve not felt for some time.

The past year, my career has looked a lot like that empty, overgrown and yet seemingly sterile yard in Rawlins. Still, I have plugged away, trying to rebuild from what has seemed to be the sterile ground of an industry that’s in trouble.

But today, I’m not looking at sterile ground or a derelict garden. I once again am imagining possibilities, and am hoping I’ve unearthed that flagstone.