The Beach 9

Standing under a dark sky in western Kansas.  An angry crescent has set and stars pepper the sable firmament.  The Great Plains wind ruffles our clothes and sets the prairie grass to gnashing and murmuring.  Orion has risen like an electric kite.

Tonya points at it and says, How far away is that?

Your mind cant comprehend distances that vast.

Try me.

The stars there in Orion’s belt are about four hundred light years away.

How far is that?

Well…the nearest star is about four light years away.  A light year is about six trillion miles.  Or six times ten to the twelfth if you think of it that way.

Stop showing off!

I’m not!  Light in a vacuum travels at 300,000 kilometers a second.  Or a hundred eight-six thousand miles a second.  Seven times around the equator and then some.  The light from those stars has been travelling four hundred years to reach us.

I cant imagine how far that is.

Your mind can only conceive it by scale.  Imagine the sun the size of a basketball in the middle of five points in downtown Atlanta.  The Earth is the size of a marble orbiting about a hundred feet away.  Pluto is the size of a grain of sand orbiting a mile away.  Now Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, is in Seattle, 3,000 miles away.  By the time we get to Denver tomorrow we’ll have only gone half that far.  I thought that since you’ve been travelling mile after mile after empty mile this would give you a grasp of the distances involved.

It does, she says slowly.  This country is huge but on that scale, i cant imagine.

Look at the stars in the belt again.  If you see a picture of the nebula in a book it will be spectacular.  But the only way to appreciate it is to look at it thru a small telescope.  When i was ten years old they got me a six inch Newtonian reflector.  It took me weeks to put it together since nobody around me knew how to assemble one.  When i finally had it ready i took it outside and pointed it at that nebula.  I’ll never forget the sight.  It glows green like Kryptonite and has the consistency of a piece of very stretched out cotton.  Wispy like that.  The pictures of it in books do not do it justice.  They cant.

You did that when you were just ten?

Yes.

I wish i’d known you then.

You werent even born.  Not for nearly another sixty years.

Sometimes i forget how old you are.

try to forget how old i am.

You can be a bore when you’re self conscious about that.  Stop worrying about it.

Easy for you to say.

I dont even know your name, she says.

No?  Havent you looked at my driver’s license enough times?

I only looked at it once!  And i cant even remember your name.

My name is Seth.  Seth Joiner.  Happy now?

No, she says.  It’s chilly.  Let’s go back inside.

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The Beach 7: Death and Catechism

What’s it like to be old?  Tonya asks me.

I give her a dry, poisonous look but say nothing.

She puts a hand to her mouth and says, Oh, I’m sorry.  I didnt mean…

Restate your question, I say.  Something like ‘What’s it like to be sixty-eight?’

Okay, what’s it like to be sixty-eight?

Specify, I say.

Well, uh…

Maybe a good question would be about how your attitude toward death changes throughout life, I say.  At your age death is something that will happen to you someday and is pretty abstract.  When you hit forty it suddenly seems much closer, more concrete, and scarier. At sixty it affects everything.  You may not expect to die right away but you’re forty years closer than when you were at twenty.  And that means death affects your decisions and perceptions about everything.

That gives her pause and we both look down the escarpment where we’re sitting to the Dog River and at the half-dozen or so old men fishing there while she thinks of what to say next.

Were you ever married?  She finally asks.

Yes, I say.

What’s it like?  What happened?

Next question, I say.

How many times?  How long?  U have any kids?

Twice.  Many times I wondered what happened but I dont really know because it was never clear.  No kids.  Never wanted any.  Since this is turning into Twenty Questions, How about U, Tonya?

Never married, she says.  Just boyfriends.  You ever go to college?

College, yes, I say.  Why do you ask that in particular?

You know a lot of big words.  Speaking of death, do you ever wish you were dead?

No, because as long as I’m alive there’s that ahead of me and I’ll take it, even if it’s only another five minutes.

Do you ever wish you’d never been born?

Many times, I say.

She turns thoughtful again and I say, Tonya, what do you do for a living?

What do you do for a living?  She says defensively.

You first, I say.

Trust fund money, she says and her face colors.

Okay.  But why be defensive about that?

I’m not being defensive, she says, raising her voice.

You get the money from your folks in Marietta?

Yes but it’s not that they care.  It’s to keep me from asking them for money all the time.  And the checks arent generous, just enough to live a middle class life.  They know I couldnt even hold down a minimum wage job.  Your turn.  RU retired?

Yes, I say.

Since when?

Thirty years.

You have a trust fund too?

No, I say.  I do odd jobs.  You can always make money doing things nobody wants to do.

I guess I really dont want to know what kind of odd jobs?

No.  You really dont.

A vagrant zephyr redolent of trash cans winnows itself around us.  It makes me sneeze and sets the old men that are fishing to cursing. 

I’ll bet a hundred years ago this part of the river drew a lot more people to sit over there and fish, mainly because there were more people, I say.

So?

So it begs a question, Tonya.  Down where I came from…

From Brunswick?

Yeah, I say.  Did I tell you I lived there?

When we were high the other day, she says.

I think it’s odd that when the world was seriously overpopulated a few centuries ago everybody always seemed to be outside and in each others’ faces because there wasnt much room.  Now there’s a lot fewer people and a lot more room and a lot more food but everyone seems to be in hiding.  Brunswick’s creepy because any time I went outside I could feel that I was being watched.  Several times in this planet’s modern history people have suddenly moved underground into the steel and concrete caves their ancestors built.  But there was no apparent reason for it.  No plague or war or zombies or anything.  People just went underground for a while and later a few ‘heroes’ would brave their agoraphobia and move back into the abandoned cities and the cycle would repeat.  Even the big depopulation didnt seem to affect it.  People got suddenly afraid and no one knows what of.  People are weird.

You think too much, she says.

I know it.  Further on out that way is Cascade Heights, I say as I point west.  And Destiny Road.  It was a WASP version of Eldorado.  Everybody out there was rich. Now it’s a ghost town.

Did you grow up around here?  She says.

This and a few other places.

I always wondered why they named it Destiny Road.  Seems an odd name.

Maybe somebody had a dog named Destiny.

Or a wife, she says.

Or a daughter.

What did you say your name was? She says.

I didnt say, I say.

 

 

Passages

Swale and hummock sere and brown

Walking home when the sun goes down

Provenanced in ash and grief

The heart recedes like an autumn leaf

 

Tomorrow’s always new they say

But tomorrow is yesterday

Contained therein an ashen glow

Of a Bang that happened long ago

 

Now there’s snow on the roof and the chimney’s cold

And the bones grasp the logic of growing old

But my shoes are tied and the treadmill’s on

And night’s resolution’s already gone