By David Daniel
Past: 7 P.M. Sharp
At 6:00 P.M. the ship is waiting at the pier, music rising over the burble of diesel engines. The college is holding a sunset harbor cruise for its adult education grads, a last big hurrah on a fine spring evening. Dinner, drinks & dancing. Departure: 7 P.M. sharp. The commencement ceremony is slated for the morrow.
By 6:30 P.M. there’s a good crowd on board, ready for a night of fun to celebrate many semesters of hard work.
Come 7:00 P.M. the ship’s horn sounds, a deep bauuuughh rolling across the harbor front. Lines are cast off. Propellers churn. The ship draws away from the pier in a hurry of foam.
Looking off the stern I see a group of women, four or five of them, coming along the pier, attempting to run in high heels and tight skirts. Like they’ve shown up at a bus stop as the bus had started to drive away.
Others see them too, and a chorus goes up to the wheel house. Wait! More passengers! Stop!
But a ship is no bus. A ship cannot stop on a dime and go back. It keeps pulling away.
The women reach the end of the pier “yoo-hooing” and waving . . . but with a dawning awareness that the ship has sailed.
My heart goes out to them: all dressed up like that. Sharp. But, alas, not 7 P.M. sharp.
I wonder what eventually happened. Did they curse and sulk away, downcast and embarrassed? I like to think that they shook off their nautical defeat (one further lesson learned) and went downtown and had a good time.
Present: Painted Ponies
She’s talking about Duran Duran and I interrupt to ask, “Who are they again? I mean, I know, but . . .” She looks surprised, then starts to tell me, sounding just the teeniest bit patronizing.
I gave up listening to pop music after the 70s, figured it wasn’t going to get any better. Plus, I’d finally gotten down to the business of making a living and being respectable (why, I can no longer imagine). Here I am listening to a woman twenty years too young, with a purple scrunchie on her ponytail, tell me about crushing on Simon Le Bon, and how deep the lyrics of R.E.M. go, and more. But I don’t say I wasn’t paying attention back then, or that I’m not really paying attention now, either. I’m thinking about a song from my day, about painted ponies on a carousel and wondering when they speeded way the hell up.
Future: A New World
On a July morning, early, with heat already rising in woozy shimmers off the sand and small gray waves slapping lazily at my feet as I walk, I see the man. He is bending over and then straightening up, repetitively, feet planted, arms in motion. Aside from a few strollers farther away, oblivious, we are the only people on the beach.
He is wrinkled with age and in his loose-fitting white cotton pants and shirt he is intent on his actions. Practicing some Eastern martial art perhaps? Or praying? But as I watch him, nosey and unseen, I grasp the edges of something more. With each bend he is gathering handfuls of beach sand, throwing them into a cloth sack that sits nearby.
I think of the little men and women I see around the city, pushing shopping carts full of aluminum soda and beer cans, gathering up what the rest of us have cast off. And there is the couple I sometimes see walking purposefully along in single file, he holding a five-gallon plastic bucket, she following with a dip net. I greeted them once. “What are you hoping to catch?” I asked. She smiled and bobbed her head in a series of nods. “Eels.”
Now this man on a beach tossing handfuls of sand into a sack.
As I move on in the dizzying sun, the obvious explanation comes to me. All of these undertakings are connected. There is a conspiracy of grand and imponderable design afoot. A future world is in the making. A vast landmass of sand, with towering gleaming buildings built entirely of aluminum, and rivers running with eels. And America, barely bigger than Kansas, become like a stale cracker, empty at its core and nibbled at from all sides.