Three Takes on a Jump
I am five. We live on an island off the coast of
Massachusetts and I want to jump off the roof of our one-story house
and into the sand. My mother's boyfriend, a deep-sea fisherman
by the name of Captain Bill with red hair and a boat named after my
mother, says no, I may not jump off the roof. From here, the
golden sand looks deceptively soft. Like a pillow.
Almost springy. I am five and I want to jump.
This is a favorite story from the maritime era of our family
history—right up there with the half-roasted turkey flying from the
oven on Captain Bill's boat and sliding around the pitching galley
like a greased pig and the lobsters knotted onto the Christmas tree
by a nautical Santa. (I claim the lobsters were
alive—shimmying crustaceans! salty elves!—but everybody else
says boiled. Were they red? I cannot remember. I
remember their wiggling claws shaking the branches.)
Like the turkey and the lobsters, the house-jumping story has
been told and retold until everybody is sure of the details, the way
it all went down. Today, I am not so sure. Sitting
around a picnic table thirty years after the fact, I mention to my
partially assembled family that there's a thing called "shareability"—the
reason we all know the details of the jumping story is because we've
been refining the script for years, sharing the story. The
story we think we know has more to do with the telling, and
retelling, than it does with memory. In other words, ours is a
corroborative tale produced with all the witnesses in the same
room—except, in this case, I realize I was the only one who was
there, the only actual witness, and the story I'm hearing might not
be the one I remember. It's called shareability, I say.
For this piece of psychological trivia, I am eyed skeptically over
the lips of beer bottles.
Everybody knows the person who makes up stories in this
family and it's sure not them.
I'm the hero in the shared version so I should just let it rest,
let it fly, but in my line of work, these things matter, and all I'm
saying is we need to look into the gaps here. For example,
what am I doing on the roof in the first place? What fool let
a five-year-old climb a ladder, scale the warm, black shingles, peer
down into the sand and consider jumping? How did I get there?
I am five!
But let the picnic table family finish the story. On the
roof I am, and I am insisting on jumping down. There is
a stand off. Finally, the sea captain boyfriend says Go
ahead. This is everybody's favorite part and everybody but
me chimes in like a Greek chorus (after all, as the subject of the
story, the little girl with all the chutzpah, somehow my
participation would be unseemly). Go ahead, he
said. He never thought she'd actually do it, never, but Jill
didn't hesitate. She marched, she marched, right to the
edge of the room and jumped off. She landed like a sack of
potatoes—a sack of potatoes!—in the sand and then, and then,
she stood right up, brushed off her pants and said, "There."
Okay, so this is the roof-jumping story I remember and I'm
foolish to do so, because in this version I spin myself as a victim
instead of a hero, a girl who is desperate instead of tough.
In memory, I am older than five. Seven or maybe even eight.
Same house, same roof, same sand. My brother and his pack of
boys feature here. Let's say there are four of them all
together, all older than me, all utterly antagonistic. There
are no adults in this story. The boys have climbed on the roof
and pulled the ladder up. I want them to slide the ladder down
so I can climb up, too. They refuse. They're taunting
me. I'm the girl, the baby, the worthless, whiny one. Then, my
brother lowers the ladder down to me. Alright, he says,
come on up. Oh joy! I am part of the pack!
I am nearly a boy! I scamper up and hurry to the peak of the
roof. I can see the ocean from here!
The boys scuttle down the ladder like cockroaches down the side
of a refrigerator, flipping the ladder down into the sand as the
last one reaches solid ground. It was a trick. I am
stuck. Hours pass. Soon, darkness will fall. The
boys come and go, but now the talk turns to sand monsters and other
creatures of the beach night. I no longer want to be up.
I want to be down. I beg, I plead. They laugh.
This is such a good one.
At some point, the boys toss up a garbage bag: large,
black, Hefty. They want to know whether the bag will work as a
parachute. The bag is my only way down. I cannot
remember how long I wait. Finally, I shake out the bag, hold
the edges rolled tight in both fists. I am hopeful the air
will come in to break my fall.
This story has a moral: A garbage bag does not work
as a parachute. Don't try it.
There is no "there!" here. I land, I hurt, I cry. I
tell on the creeps when my mother gets home.
No third version exists, although this same black roof has
featured in decades of failed dreams in which my featherless arms
move in futile wingbeats and I cannot fly (do I lack confidence?).
But there is the thing I know to be true: I did
jump off that roof and into the sand. My body remembers what
it feels like to hit.
Sand is not as soft as it looks. Sand, when arrived at from
a height of at least ten feet—Hefty bag or no—receives its guest
with only slightly more benevolence than concrete. Sand is
ground rock, after all. When I hit, the air left my lungs like
a balloon clapped between two bricks. I felt the blow, the
sharp emptying of my lungs and then their refusal to fill again.
Chest down, lifting my face from the sand, grit in my eyes, my nose,
stuck to my lips, I could not breathe. No matter whose version
is true, I hadn't expected this. I was sure the sand would be
soft, or at least softer. I was a child.
Jill Christman's first book, Darkroom: A Family Exposure,
won the 2001 AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and was
published by the University of Georgia Press in 2002. She
earned her M.F.A. at the University of Alabama in 1999, and she now
teaches literary nonfiction and serves as Chair of Creative Writing
at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana where the ground is hard
and flat. Copyright
© 2006 by Jill Christman.