Of course, it had to be on my watch. A kid at the school fun fair bounced out of the bouncy house (if you don’t know what a bouncy house is, it’s one of those rentable blow-up houses that are a cesspool of germs that you see at fairs and birthday parties). Anyway, this kid was jumping as if his feet were made of flubber and the next thing I knew he was doing a face plant on the concrete. My heart raced fearing a broken arm or knocked out teeth or a lawsuit. I left my station at the ticket table and dived into the crowds.
“We need a nurse at the bouncy house!” I yelled. “A kid flew out!”
While the bouncy boy got plastered with band-aids, I returned to my post of taking tickets, the once crowded attraction now as desolate as a broken roller coaster at the state fair. But I wasn’t thinking about the airborne boy who looked like his face had three skinned knees. All I was thinking about was how my life bounced off track. I mean, one year I’m shooting commercials with Micheal Jordan. The next, I’m a carnie in a city no one has ever heard of in China.
I doubt if I’ll put that on my resume. Ex-pat carnie loses a kid in the bouncy house.
After the school fair closed and the bouncy house was deflated, I went back to my apartment deflated, too. I was thinking of the twists my life had taken. Where is that annoying GPS recalculating lady when you need her? The stars that I hitched my dreams to were black holes and I was entering the stage of life where I’d be attending more funerals than weddings. Yes, I was having a pity party but the violin music came to a halt when I turned on my computer and saw a message in my in box.
It was from a someone I hadn’t heard from in eons. Like half a life time. Someone I met in Cook County Jail who was the director of an inmate tutoring program called PACE.
I wasn’t an inmate in jail, I was a volunteer.
I volunteered in this literacy program in an earlier chapter of my life, one that would be in Part One if my life were a John Irving novel. I had just moved to Chicago, a farm kid who landed a job at a big ad agency who was afraid of the city. My father told me never to go West of State Street, so the first year I stayed locked up in my studio apartment at nights with a base ball bat in my lap. But my 23rd birthday (which also happened to be a Monday), I wanted to do something. That’s when I remembered seeing a sign in my church about this jail tutoring program on Mondays. I thought why not go to jail? Maybe hide a file in a birthday cake?
So on my 23rd birthday, I took the church van to Cook County Jail. It reeked of Lysol and cigarette butts and everything was beige from the bricks to the state issued wardrobe. But the real birthday surprise was the inmates. I was expecting to see old drunks like what Andy Griffith rounded up with Barney Fife, but they were just kids– many younger than me–which taught me a lesson quick: life wasn’t fair.
Then it hit me that some of those guys I tutored might still be in jail or dead. And while I had a lot of bouncy house moments in my life, all that some of these guys may have experienced were three hots and a cot.
So I responded to the email, condensing my life to 200 words (leaving out the bouncy house carnie bit). When I clicked SEND, a miracle happened. I bounced out of my pity party.
Then I thought about that kid who bounced out out of the bouncy house once more time. He’ll never forget that day. And years from now when his grand kids ask him about the scar on his cheek, hopefully, when he looks back on his life, it won’t be filled with regrets, but full of the unexpected, living his entire life like he did in that bouncy house, having fun and taking chances.
“One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead.”
Maybe my life didn’t bounce off track after all.