There’s this rock, a boulder, maybe, half-buried in the lawn on the south side of my house. It’s jagged and bumpy, with fractures and cutoffs that would be impossible cliffs for any of the chipmunks and mantises that live in the burrows and bushes along the hill. To people, though, they make for a comfortable staircase, and easy four-foot hike to the top. Over the years, my family and I have talked, eaten, drank, dug in the mud, and tormented the ants that cross its flat roof. It’s a great place for a Sunday morning bagel and coffee, or a Sunday evening ice cream. Kids, my own, and others, have used it as a stage for quick performances of Hamlet and readings of Les Miserables, always in its original French. I’ve sat there many nights, looking up. It’s a great place to see far-off things as they cross their highest points in the dark. I’ve seen the Moon, phase after phase, make its way across that patch of sky. It’s a different place, a cordoned-off corner of the past, away from the constant battles with screens and phones, where time slows down, where people just talk and play.
Lately, the late-falling fall has started to catch up with itself, and I haven’t seen the stars since the day before November’s full Moon. Finally, for a couple of hours last night, the rain, presumably tired from all the rain, took a break. So, I took the trash and stepped outside to get some air. I got news just before Thanksgiving that an old family friend had passed away, a corner of my childhood sliced away. My family and his used to be very close; we’d spend every Christmas, every sparkler-filled Independence Day, every Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s together. Thanks to various twists and turns, though, I hadn’t seen or been in touch him for over 20 years, probably, except for a few friendly and nostalgic, but widely-spaced emails, mostly asking the same few questions about my parents, mostly reminiscing about the Atari and ColecoVision games I used to play at his house. My mind was heavy with a quiet word of thanks for times gone as I stepped outside, and as I heard the door swing closed and then open again.
From the shadows, my daughter, who told me earlier that her day had been filled with annoyed teachers and mildly-back-stabbing friends, appeared by my side and started telling me about the pencil sharpener in her math classroom. “It’s one of those ones with the crank, not a motor,” she said, “and when you’re done, you twist the thing that holds the… the…” she couldn’t remember the word for shavings, “and dump it out, but you have to bang it or else they get stuck and it just makes things worse.” I’ve always loved these small chats, conversational vignettes, that happen on the way to take out the trash, or pour a cup of tea, or put away the vacuum cleaner. These are the talks that exist somewhere between small talk and real conversation, but they’re the ones that fill in cracks and give texture to life. Life feels depleted, run-down, and old without them. They’re conversational spackle.
As we spoke of pencils, we walked toward the big rock, pulled to it, without thinking. The lawn leads straight across and over to the top of it; the climb is only to get down on the side between the house and the street. The day’s rain had drained into three or four puddles, as big across as LP records, and only a little deeper, and left the rest of the rock mostly dry. As drizzle started to fall, we stopped, sat, and looked up at the sky. The clouds speeding by above were so constant, so thick, and so dark, it was like looking down at the waves on a wind-blown sea.
“The clouds are great tonight,” I said. “I love watching them.” I’ve always loved watching clouds, and there’s something special and beautiful about broad stretches of stratus clouds. Especially at night, even though they block out the stars, I can’t help but look for a while. It’s like watching a stage play and being amazed at what must be going on backstage, unseen, hidden behind the curtains. It’s a whole other type of sky-watching that doesn’t get enough credit. I know I don’t give it as much as maybe I should. As much as I love a dark and starry night, cloudy ones have their own magic. It’s another face of the sky. Always the same, always different, and always worth a look.
“I know, me too,” she said, and pulled her knees to her chest. We sat for a few more minutes before the drizzle turned to rain and made us we agree she should probably finish her homework. As we got up to turn toward the house, the clouds opened just enough to see a bright star and one or two other, dimmer ones. “Arcturus? Antares? Betelgeuse!” she said.
By the time we covered the couple dozen feet to the house, the break in the clouds had healed and closed up again. I grinned through the drops rolling through my hair, “No,” I said, rushing us both through the door, “Doesn’t matter.”
A few minutes later, as the heavy rain hit the roof, I looked out the window at the temporary rivers rolling down the street toward the drains. On the big rock, right next to where I had been sitting, was the trash bag. She walked up next to me again, hugged me, “you’re on your own this time.”