November, and I am standing under the light of an almost full moon, near the top of a wooded path that slopes down to a river. The moon has Jupiter for company, and I have Tango the leaf magnet. His fur seems to be unique in that each and every fine strand is lined with microscopic barbs that snag every small twig and dead leaf from the forest floor. At night, this is not much of an issue. But it is hard to look dignified walking a small terrier by day when he looks like he is wearing a ghillie suit.
The night air is cool but not cold, and something about the weather is not right. My eyes tell me it is fall, almost winter. The sun sets well before five, and, like a weakly lobbed softball, never really climbs that high in the sky before dropping in the southwest. The tree canopy overhead is bare of leaves, and through the black lattice of branches I see a few of the brightest stars, along with the moon. The first time I walk in autumn woods after the leaves have fallen I am always taken back to a childhood living room, listening to my mother read Halloween stories. The comfort of yellow lamp light. A sofa with scratchy coarse green fabric. We would decorate our picture window with store bought and homemade pictures of witches, skeletons, and cats with arched backs. The envy of the neighborhood. But tonight the air does not feel like winter approaching, it feels like spring — a warming up feeling. The breeze is light and soft and the earth smells new and damp. Last week, a late October storm brought such heavy wet snow that trees and limbs came crashing down all over town. Mostly oaks and beeches – the trees that are last to surrender their leaves. Since the storm, the weather has been mild, and all week as the snow receded, whenever I ventured outside I found myself questioning which season I was in – could it be spring already? This is not so curious or strange to me as it might seem to you, for I am an itinerant worker, and have often moved from one quadrant of the country to another without regard for time or season, so that in any given year I might never experience winter. The taste of the night air might be fall in New England, or spring in Virginia, or summer in Santa Monica.
There is a strong tension on my right arm. How long have I been gazing up at the sky, and how long has Tango been trying to pull me down the dark path? I bend down to give him a pat, pull an oak leaf off his nose, and tell him to be patient. Look at me, I want to say. There’s lots of places I want to go too. Australia. Patagonia. That place in Texas where people see the mystery lights. Anyway, your tank is dry, I remind him. But he wants to go down the path anyway, lifting his leg out of habit if nothing else. I resolve to take him, maybe as soon as tomorrow, down to the wide open fields along the river, where I can let him off leash. I dare not untether him here in the woods, for even though he depends on me entirely his terrier instincts will get the better of him, and he will wander and wander until he is out of earshot, and terrier and I will both be terrified.
For now I keep him safely leashed, and stare at the sky, and marvel at all the things I have forgotten, at fifty. Suddenly self-conscious of posing in an illustrative tableau for Middle-Aged Man – at the top of a downward sloping path through a dark forest, in autumn, etc. etc, I break the spell by pulling out my iPhone and activating the astronomy app, waving it around the sky, confirming that yes, the moon is where it says it should be and so is Jupiter, by golly. There is Cassiopeia, overhead. If anyone saw me I would feel sheepish but no one does and I don’t. I drop the phone back in my pocket.
The next day, for no other reason than because I can, I set out in my car for the Vermont Country Store, an hour north in Rockingham, Vermont. I tell my wife I am going there to buy cider syrup and lye soap, both of which are true, but I think I expect to find something else there as well. Long drives alone are usually cathartic for me, a chance to clear my mind. Except I am on the car’s Bluetooth the entire time, talking first to my father, in Mississippi, then to my mother in North Carolina, lastly to my youngest brother in Pennsylvania. His wife is leaving him, in fact she is seeing another man, and he is waiting for some kind of clearance from the FBI that will allow him to take a job in South Korea. He talks for 45 minutes, complaining about the state of the world, until I find myself sitting in the parking lot of the Vermont Country Store, looking at the clock, watching the sun disappear. I wish him well and run inside and grab a basket. I quickly find my three bottles of cider syrup and two bars of lye soap and some penny candy to bring home with me, but I spend more time wandering the aisles looking for what I know not. I pick up a can that says “Fartless Chili”, next to a packet of “Fartless Bean Dip”, and as I wonder in amazement who buys this crap, a couple — I am going out on a limb here to say they hail from my home state of New Jersey — approaches, and the man picks up a can and laughs and says, “haha, honey, Fartless Chili. Haha.”
I am guided home by the same Moon, even more brilliant tonight, Jupiter by its side, and wish I had a pair of binoculars to see Jupiter’s moons. The next night will also be clear, with the same moon rising, only this time, setting out for a hike and realizing it will be dark by the time I get to the trail, I nose my car down the river road and drive off the pavement, alongside the airport runway, until the dirt road ends at a locked gate. The runway lights are on, a few hundred yards away from me, and the traffic from the interstate, a mile off, fills the entire bowl of sky with a rushing sound. I walk out into a cut corn field and regard the whole sweep of the valley, the hills and mountains in stark relief against the blue-black sky. Again I reach for my phone and take a few dozen photos of the moon over the river, and I am amazed at how well they turn out. In a few minutes, I will phone home and ask my wife if she wants pizza. But before that, as long as I can, I lean against my car, and look at the sky, and the moon, and the deep blue night.
© 2001, 2018, James Brunel