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MAJESTIC AFTERNOONS


It's late afternoon in my little French village. The shadows are pools of gray poured over the sizzling gold sidewalks. Very quiet about now. People are dozing after a big Father's Day dinner of pot roast, ratatouille, long skinny loaves of bread for dipping into the gravy, a cherry pie, and little cups of smoking French coffee strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth. No one smokes anymore, but the kids may drift off down the narrow street and light up a hand-rolled stick of pipe tobacco. The girls are tired, and have combed out their hair, and look around with a bewildered gaze at the emptiness of afternoon. The boys are eager to take their battered soccer ball down to the park and kick it in the air, then chase after it like medieval foot soldiers.

The church is empty, and cold inside. The spiritual hunger many felt decades before has become sublimated into gazing into a cell phone, tapping keys to write little smart-alecky rejoinders to someone's attempt at wit. It makes a young man smile to think he has written something clever. The phone will vibrate with a response, and the hour slides by in punctuated snickers.

We went off at noon to a nearby village to enjoy the open-air market. There's a woman there in an arm cast who makes the best picholine olives ever put on one's tongue. They're green olives turned in parsley and cloves of garlic, and you eat them between sips of ice-cold white wine. You can buy a length of chorizo fort from the butcher, and fill your mouth with a salty, tart, slightly biting hunk of sausage before chomping on another olive. The wind blows your hair, the sound of contented chit chat fills the little cafe where we sit. The sun comes down through the surrounding roofs like shards of glass before melting away into the cracks of the street. It fills you with a nameless joy to be sitting there, to be close to other people, to sense that something eternal is unwinding off an invisible spool each of us holds a piece of in our hands.

When we drive back home to our own little cliff-top perch, the afternoon has aged. It feels like the wind is brittle and scented with the odors of an old drawer someone has kept the linens in for decades. You want to sit down and meditate in this cool room, and wait for the sound of the coffee pot to gurgle as the frothy espresso comes up to the upper chamber. My wife pours a cup and tells me to enjoy this little honor she bestows on Father's Day. I accept with a grin and sip the smoky blackness as if it were drawn from a cleft in a granite hillside.

What can you say? You are alone and rooted in time, you are aging and growing a little soft around the edges. You move slowly, you don't leap around or mount steps by twos and threes these days. You fold your legs in the chair and balance a book on your knee. You are the owner of the next several uneventful hours, and each of them is precious. A friend of ours was in the street when we came back. He was walking his gray-eyed dog and informed me he is leaving for Greece in the morning. Santorini. He'll be back by Thursday. He's happy, excited to be closing up his little office in the house and going out to face the oldest sunlight we know in Europe. He'll sip ouzo and smell burnt oregano, and crunch down on grilled fish, then wipe away the meal with a slurp of crisp dry wine. I tell him to relish every moment, and he nods sagely to me.

Tomorrow everyone will be back at work, shuffling paper, ordering more stock for the shelves, dealing with an irate customer, or telling the kid working a summer job to mop the floor again. Calls will come in, and emails will pile up on the monitor, lunch will be late in all the fury of a Monday. That's behind me now. I don't rush for anything, unless it's the dark, cold thuds of rain from a summer storm. I walk along and occasionally take hold of my straw hat when the wind picks up. I know peace and how to measure it with my breath. I look at the unimportant details of the street, and notice a woman's agitated look as she searches for her coin purse in the wrong sweater pocket. A boy looks at me because I am wearing sunglasses and a hat at the same time. I wonder what he thinks I am -- a gangster? A detective from a noir film? I smile, but even that act strikes him as sinister. Then we pass and both of us are forgotten in an instant.

When you stroll along as I do now, you have eternity on the end of a leash, like some contented old dog who is in no hurry to get home. We have all these trees to stare at, and to pause over while the imaginary dog eagerly reads the news he smells there from all the other dogs. Language abounds in the subtle permanence of the gardens, the trashcans without lids, the bits of paper blowing down the gutter. Everything is a rune, a hieroglyph of some mysterious process that moves in a glacial tempo. It's only when you take your eyes off yourself that the world opens its secretive heart and allows you to draw nearer, to understand a few details of what lies at the heart of reality.

Father's Day sums up all my grunts, all my forgotten hangovers, my anxiety at work, my eagerness to slip into the caverns of night with a glass of wine and let the sea of time wash over me. My kids grew up around me, stretching further and further into the vague world until their hands could grasp it by the iron railing and the doorknob. They were mastering their own becoming, pulling on pants and buttoning blouses and going off with a certain indestructible curiosity each morning. Every inch of maturity put air between us, but the heart had this loyalty and emotional clarity to make them know I was their father, their stanchion in the murky weather. They could find home, and come into the evening light with a certain reassurance that I'd be sitting there.

Of course, I wasn't always around. I would leave the kids here in the village and go off to teach in Texas each semester, and only be home for summers, and when possible, the Christmas holidays. My disappearances were a hard rhythm to learn, but they greeted me with the same openness and trust as if I had never really gone. I was like some Eskimo hunter who went off into the gray ice looking for seals or walrus to bring home four months later. The joy of my footsteps coming up the stairs at the train station in Avignon was enough to erase the dreary winter habits they had come through. Long memories. Fading ones. The sky dissolved over them. The night was carried in by the rustle of plane trees, the shimmers of a field of lavender.

I cross my legs again and the book falls to the tile floor beside me. I must have dozed off a little. The mind keeps parting curtains in the back of our consciousness and the past is that unending drama of shadows and bursts of laughter. I know I am merely this fragile dimension separating me from the chaos of my memories; logic cannot illuminate the corners of my awareness. I have my doubts. My faith in reason has diminished considerably since I turned seventy. We are sleepless theaters of memory and only when we loose our grip on reality does the sound of who we were once rise and come near. I am not afraid to let the bottomless depths of my soul talk to me. It's what I am, a creature who remembers everything, and who cannot quite put the fragments together. They are a jigsaw too complicated to complete at any one sitting. As Whitman once said, "I contain multitudes." We are stuccoed over with quadrupeds and contain gneiss and other ingredients of the raw earth. We are made of star stuff and owe our existence to remote comets that left the ash of their fiery tails to melt into our blood and give us our humanity.

When the next literal sound occurs just below the window, I know it is my friend coming back from his walk. He will make a noisy farewell to the afternoon when he shuts his door. His dog will bark and then the two will go up a narrow stair and begin the rituals of late afternoon. All this is literal, but it is also the ripples on a lake that has no end.

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