Thursday, October 28, 2004

Indistinct Figures

I ran out to the grocery store, because -- for reasons I never understood -- Alan's teacher was anxious that Alan's photographs be developed before tomorrow. So I picked up the photos. Scrawled on the back of the envelope was: "Severely underexposed. Check before buying." Oh well. A gallon of milk, too, remember!

Weird pictures. Dark red haze, indistinct figures. They were pictures of school, all right, but that was about as much as I could make out.

Out in the parking lot, I could see the moon, and I realized that what I had thought was a cloud -- an odd cloud -- partly obscuring it was in fact the shadow of the Earth. My shadow. The shadow had almost covered it. Dark red haze, indistinct moon.

I hurried home to let everyone know. "You can see the eclipse! You can see it from right across the street!"

The denizens of our house straggled out, one after another, and gathered on opposite sidewalk. We are a rather shabby bunch. We tend to wear black, and to look like we got lost in the haze of a coffeehouse back in 1972 and have just wandered back out. Even my kids and their friends, who of course were not in coffeehouses, or anywhere else, in 1972.

Martha said "I'll just tell the Smiths," and walked one house over. "Should I tell the Joneses?" asked Alan. It struck him as odd that Martha should tell the Smiths and not tell the Joneses when we were standing smack in front of the Joneses' house. I couldn't even tell if the Smiths were home, but I could see one of the younger Joneses at the computer in the living room. But Alan's sensitive to social nuance, so he wanted to check it out. "Sure," I said. He scurried to their door.

I'm not sure why Martha didn't go to tell the Joneses. We get along well. Our kids used to play together a fair amount, though that's tapered off as they've grown older, and gradually discovered that they are on opposite sides of the great divide.

We're a Blue family, and they're a Red family. A Kerry sign in our yard, Kerry bumper-stickers on both our cars. The haphazard lawn and garden of people who won't use fertiilizer, seldom prune, and don't care much about appearances. An untidy porch littered with toys. Various rescued animals and stray kids tend to gather at our place. Odd people show up. A monk in orange robes, one day. A friend whose car is papered with lesbian slogans, another.

Across the way, the Joneses live in a very different house. A brilliant green lawn, carefully tended. Nothing out of place. On every patriotic holiday, the American flag flies from a bracket by their front door, and is carefully, and I'm sure correctly, taken down at dusk. The only bumper sticker I've ever seen on either of their beautifully kept cars read Billy Graham. Praying for Greater Portland.

They are good people. Considerate neighbors, and terrific parents: their kids are cheerful, polite, and reliable -- great resources for hiring to feed the animals, while we're gone. They recycle conscientiously. They have exchange students of all races and nationalities come to stay, and see to it that they meet the other young people in the neighborhood. They go to a nearby conservative, Baptist church. Devout Christians. One day when their youngest son left after a visit, I found Alan sitting in his room, silent tears coursing down his face. Young Jones had told him that when his mother died, he would never see her again, because we weren't going to heaven.

That was the only time I know of when the divide became explicit. They made it up, and went on playing with each other. I'm quite sure that the Joneses would have been distressed to learn that their youngest had said that. What they think of our prospects for salvation, I don't know, but they take that business about not judging very seriously. And in any case, they are kindly, gentle people, with open generous faces. Nothing like the vengeful authoritarian Baptists of Blue legend.

Tim Jones and one of his sons -- could that tall young man actually be his youngest? -- came out to look. After a bit Tim went inside and came out with a telescope. "The only thing I've ever won," he said apologetically, as though having a telescope on a stand was a little ostentatious. "I entered a raffle at a conference, and got a phone call a week later... I'd forgotten that I'd entered." We talked about the total solar eclipse in the early 1970's, how spooky it had been, how at ten in the morning the world had gone brown and the birds had all fallen silent.

He got the telescope oriented and focused, and we all took turns peering into the eyepiece. It didn't really look much bigger.

The opening lines of Julius Caesar kept just barely escaping me. Sheeted dead gibbering in the streets -- various omens forecasting disaster to the state. Were there eclipses too? I wasn't sure. But an eclipse just a week before this most divisive of elections, an election widely expected to unreliable, maybe rigged -- there was an obvious interpretation to it. None of us made it. A baleful moon. My first thought was that it presaged President Bush's re-election. A depressing thought. But then I thought, that would only be regarded as baleful by half of us. Maybe Kerry will be elected, and this moon is a baleful omen for Tim and his family and the Red half of the country. I had a distinct, unshakeable conviction that the mirror-image of my thoughts, swapping Red for Blue, were in Tim's mind. I opened my mouth to make some jocular remark about half of America at least being certain to see a baleful omen come true. Closed it again without speaking.

The out-of-work programmer who lives a couple houses down from us -- he's been out of high tech work for a couple years now, and has taken to doing odd-jobs, building porches and so forth -- he and his wife pulled up. He's a cheerful soul. Seeing us gathered on the sidewalk with a telescope, he hailed us from across the street: "For a million dollars I'll bring it back!" Tim hollered something bantering back. They're a Blue family too.

It was chilly. We began to straggle back across the street, back to the warm comfortable untidiness of our Blue house. The streetlight dazzled my eyes; as I closed the door I caught one last glimpse of the Joneses, indistinct figures carrying a telescope back into their neat Red house.

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