“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” ― Albert Camus, The Plague
The pandemic has taken so much from us. Much that it has taken may never come back.
One thing that I miss very much is the rectangular plastic bar at the grocery store that you put on the moving belt between your groceries and the person in front of you. That piece of smooth plastic doesn’t seem to be very dangerous to me, but I guess other people, strangers, do touch it – so it has to go.
I miss it. I liked to watch the checker slide it down the little channel so the next person in line can wall off their purchases. I miss that.
The other day I had a list of groceries to pick up so I stopped by one of the local establishments (we do not live in a food desert – there are at least five grocery stores from several different cultures and styles of food within an easy bike ride from my house). The place was crowded, with several folks lined up placing stuff from their baskets onto the belt.
From the busy checkout line one over, behind me, I heard a woman say, clearly, “I stop at the bananas.”
I stop at the bananas.
What a cool phrase. How useful.
“Yes, I know there is a sale on papayas, but I stop at the bananas.”
“Sorry I’m late but on the way over here I saw a fruit stand. I stop at the bananas.”
“Apples…. not Cucumbers, I stop at the Bananas.”
“She’s a lunatic, not me, I stop at the bananas.”
“Every morning, I make a smoothie. There are lots of different kinds, but I stop at the bananas.”
Or, as it was today, a simple tip to the checker where the boundary was. It was right after the bananas.
When the stars threw down their spears, And watered heaven with their tears, Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
—-William Blake, The Tyger
The houses in tiny Plainview were all made of wood and the walls didn’t even slow the sound down. Mike could hear Aunt Alma and cousin Duane Clankman talking, even out on the front porch, reaching out to knock on the the door. Mike paused and listened to them talking… talking about him.
“Now Duane,” Alma said, “You need to be nice to him. It’s been difficult, you know that.”
“But why is he here?” Duane asked.
“After his father was killed in Da Nang this summer, his Mom, my sister, has been falling apart. She is having a lot of trouble dealing with everything. So we offered to take Mike in for a while, until she gets…”
“Gets her shit together?”
“Dammit Duane! You know I don’t like that language. Gets her life together. She’s gone off to a… hospital. For help. Until she gets better.”
“And when will that be?”
“I don’t know. All I’m asking is that you try to be nice to him. Try to make him feel at home. It’s tough on him too.”
“But he’s so weird!”
“He’s from the city. Plainview must be weird to him too…. Wait, is that him on the porch?”
“Come in,” came the voices of both Duane and Alma at the same time.
The door was unlocked. Mike pushed it open and noticed it didn’t even have a lock on it. No lock on the door! Whoever heard of anything like that! It was 1966 after all.
Duane’s father was out in the fields, drilling wheat. Duane, Alma, and Mike sat down to dinner: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It was very good. Amazingly good.
“Aunt Alma,” Duane said, “This chicken is the best. What’s your secret recipe?”
“Well, thank you dear. There’s no secret, it’s just that this morning that chicken was running around in the back yard, eatin’ bugs. Picked the beans ‘n taters fresh too.”
Mike felt his eyes get big. He always thought chicken came in plastic wrap from the store and green beans in cans.
Aunt Alma began wrapping the leftover chicken in paper, and spooning vegetables into a Pyrex bowl.
“Now boys, I’m taking this out to Joe in the field, he’ll be getting hungry. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be too cold tonight, I thought you boys would like to take the cots here and go camping.”
She gestured at two folded metal and webbing cots in the hallway off the kitchen. Pillows and sleeping bags stuffed into sacks were right next to the cots.
“Camping?” asked Mike.
“In the front yard,” replied Duane. “It isn’t really camping, but it’s kinda fun anyway. If the weather gets bad we can come right back in.”
That sounded crazy to Mike.
“Back home we couldn’t sleep in the front yard, it wouldn’t be safe… or even quiet enough.”
“Safe enough here. Nobody ever comes around after dark. Quiet too, unless the sheep are on this side of the pasture bleating,” Mike said.
The two boys dragged the cots out into the front yard and unfolded them, each pinching their fingers once on the scissoring steel tubes, onto the grass. They unpacked the sleeping bags and spread them out on the cots.
“Here, scoot yours around along the sidewalk like this,” Duane said, handing Mike a piece of white chalk.
“Why? And what’s the chalk for?”
“For counting shooting stars. We lie there in the dark and every one we see we make a mark on the sidewalk. Then, in the morning, we count the marks, see who wins. ”
“I’ve never seen a shooting star,” said Mike.
“You’re kidding me. How is that possible?”
“In the city, the sky is brown. The moon peeks through, but you can’t see the stars. Too much light and air pollution.”
“Well, we’ll see some tonight. In school today, the teacher talked about the Leonid meteor shower. Tonight’s ‘sposed to be the peak. She said we might see ten or so an hour.”
The boys straightened their cots and bags, stuck a feather pillow at the head, and set their chalk down in arm’s reach. Then they went inside to watch TV. As the show ended, a truck drove up and Alma and Joe came in from the field. Mike’s uncle looked exhausted, but was polite and friendly.
“I saw the cots outside, you two going camping?”
“Well, I wish I could join you, but I got another hard day tomorrow, need to get all the sleepeye I can.”
Joe shook Mike’s hand with a firm grip, like Mike was an adult.
“You two better get out and get some sleep now… no horsing around!” Aunt Alma said with a smile.
The two boys walked out into the dark and Mike instinctively looked up. He had never seen anything like that. The sky was a dark, inky, perfect black and thrown across the pitch were more stars that he thought could possibly exist. It looked impossible. It looked like more of the sky was star that not.
“Jesus!” Mike said.
“What? It always looks like that. Unless it’s cloudy.”
“Maybe here it does. It doesn’t look like that everywhere.”
They slid into their sleeping bags and arranged their pillows until they were as comfortable as possible on the sagging cots.
“Grab your chalk and look up,” said Duane.
It didn’t take long. There was something, something fast, a quick streak of light. It seemed to live more in Mike’s memory than in real time.
“I think I saw one!”
“So did I. Make a mark!”
Now that he knew what to look for, he saw the next one better. Then another, and another. Four chalk marks on the sidewalk.
“Duane, they are coming fast. Do they always do that?”
“No way, I’ve never seen anything like this. It must be the Leonid shower that my teacher was talking about.”
And then, the sky opened up. It was like a fireworks show. It was like alien showers of fire. The boys had to stop marking because they were seeing hundreds of shooting stars. They just stared at the sky, mouths open, transfixed.
Mike was astounded. It was like every star was falling from the sky. He thought of the city, where nobody would even see this sight, going on but obscured over their very heads. He thought of his father, and the exploding shells and arcing rockets that must have looked like this on the last night of his life. He thought of himself, there on that creaky cot in the middle of nowhere with the streaks and bursts of celestial incandescence exploding overhead.
He felt so small against such a display. But he also felt huge, expanding up through the air, up into space, enjoying this show that seemed to be created just for him.
The boys stared as the display continued hour after hour. Maybe they fell asleep, maybe they didn’t, but eventually the east began to glow and the stars, both stationary and falling, began to fade.
At breakfast the phone rang and folks came by. It seems like the whole town had wandered out into the night and seen the fireworks. To Mike the world seemed different somehow. The little town felt a little less dingy and plain, the air a little brighter and pure. The two boys ate their fresh eggs and homemade hash browns and then took a nap to catch up on sleep, secure in knowing that this night was etched into their memories, clear until the day they died.