The Rock in the Grate
from All The Funny Little Packages: A Husband Meditates on the Mysterious Craft of Marriage
by Ben Miller
An outlandish luxury of innumerable stops and starts, elegant fade away shots and excruciating close-ups—that’s one definition of a long marriage I’m able to embrace.
In a week it is possible to together make enough mistakes to get off-track for years, with more years afterward to regain momentum or meander again in stupid old, or nasty new, directions. No other elective relationship takes a simple clock and does such absurd things to it because no other elective relationship is so exclusive (save possibly a third grade friendship), concentrating, while simultaneously diffusing, time. A marriage that lasts is a stirring that is also a settling, a haze and a lens finely ground, and through the smoky glass I peer again. In the ordinary course of affairs there’s not much place for muddling around in the riddle of what a life actually is, while all—even dullness, and especially riddles—can be useful to art. Words, the brightest ones, burn any fuel. Pages can talk to us about us like no human being.
Back to third grade. I believe the roots of the ability of a couple of writers to put up with each other for decades may curl all the way from 2018 to there—predating even our early adolescence of clamping fingers around notebooks and not letting go. At eight it was the Famous Author’s card game we played in different regions of America but on the same hard old carpets, her, I, dying to be dealt Emily Dickenson, getting John Greenleaf Whittier instead, but not standing, screaming: “I quit!” We were not quitters. We were attuned to rocks. My urban Iowa prizes, agates collected off buckling church parking lot asphalt (set out during mass by a local Boo Radley with a rock polisher) lined a sill next to the torn screen window. Anna, well, she did a thing a mite more impressive with her booty as New Yorkers are wont to do.
She grew up in Brooklyn Heights, near the promenade’s vista of the Statue of Liberty water skiing! on the pewter bay beyond Manhattan where Daddy worked! sky-scratching glass talons of towers at the other end of the bridge’s silver entrails. She ran around on quiet streets in chinos her mother, Gail, repaired with needle and thread. Like younger sister Allison, she was also fan of the Batman TV series (POW! BAM!) and that breakfast dish named Toad in the Hole—the toad a poached egg, the hole cut in toast. Like me 941 miles away in curious Urban Iowa, like almost all kids, she dreaded more things, and dreamed more things, than any adults (except possibly novelist Judy Blume or Marvel artist Gray Morrow) could bear imagine.
One interesting hazy day in the early 1970s—prior to tightened EPA regulations dispersing enough factory emissions so that cardinals and jays returned to startle outer-borough courtyard-watchers—Anna wedged an oval of scavenged shale into a sidewalk grate down the block from the family’s apartment in a six-story building on Schermerhorn Street. Pressure of industrious hands made certain a smooth gray bauble was not kicked into the gutter to sit there, unappreciated, and drown in rain. Fingers made a thing perfectly fit where it did not belong. The gesture—I’d guess—helped a sensitive child feel less alone in her troubling effort to attend desires of others—anxious parents, chip-crunching friends already plotting Hollywood careers, sniffing teachers—while secretly desiring on some morning to only please herself and live far away with a dozen or more Papermate pens, out where she spent barefoot vacations with an enchanting red-haired cousin, a smoking cussing cousin and letter-writing grandparents living near the Minnesota/South Dakota border.
That was the place for her—that realm of bulb-studded Ferris wheels, hops across sizzling cement pool decks, plates of deviled eggs and pigs-in-blankets, breathless daily bike rides to the edge of town to admire crystal innards of geodes displayed on tables in the yard of a rock collector who never came out to say hi and rarer trips to Blue Mound State Park cliffs thrust out over farmland like the chin of a hero’s face history might not finished carving for another million years. (As soon as she could she’d walk there by herself in July and lie on grass and think up stories.)
She checked the grate the next day. Rock there. The day after. There. Did anyone else notice? Rooming houses still existed on the block. Tenants: bearded men who might be retired ship captains, epic poets, anyone. The one’s carved cane. Others wore sweaters without regard to season and bit pipe stems. Did they see her fine trick? The rock—a miracle of stillness amid Brooklyn’s perpetual motion—hovered above trash lending hips to shadows in a vault. When she pressed it, it stayed put.
She smiled at a job well done, then grew up, along the way playing a Bronte in a school play, attending Halloween banjo concerts on Pete Seeger’s pumpkin-laden sloop Clearwater moored off South Street Seaport and the No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden—her first night unchaperoned in Manhattan, hearing Carly Simon reunite with James Taylor to sing “Mockingbird.” At sixteen she won the Dramatist Guild’s Young Playwright’s Prize for a one-act, Coleman, SD, composed on the apartment couch where, stretched out, she did her best work, pen lifting as she relished the lone tone of a New York harbor fog horn if it was that yucky of a day.
By the time Anna showed me the rock in the grate, she was a student in the NYU graduate writing program too, and also like me twenty-three, but unlike me writing mature prose. She pointed down and told the tale. I said something. She laughed. Her heaped fair hair laughed with her. I adored yips of her high notes, how her upper lip lifted revealing an inch of gum lending a grin pink conch shell contours. Part of my mission in life from 1987 on was to make her laugh as often as possible. One of the first gifts I’d given Anna was Eric Partridge’s silly Dictionary of Clichés.
There! Stuck! For almost twenty years already, a tenure spanning the mayoral stints of Lindsey, Beame, Koch, and the planet-rocking murder of John Lennon in front of the Dakota apartment building where he lived with Yoko Ono and son Sean. The crashing down of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, did not jar that rock free. Nor did our wedding, exactly a month later, a small gathering of relatives and friends from the NYU writing program in downtown Brooklyn’s antique Gage and Tollner’s restaurant featuring Chef Edna Lewis’s she-crab soup and fried oysters, waiters in half-coats (the oldest had earned the gold eagle patch) and extensive ceiling curly-cues of tarnished brass gas fixtures effusing an ochre glow that we considered hopeful. It was a kittywampus fantasy of going forward by turning the clock hand back far then letting go—BOING!—to reap the velocity of ages.
Gail sewed Anna a wedding dress of green velvet as if we were living on the prairie in the 1880s. Believing Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne would approve (Stop Making Sense, his concert movie, was a favorite), I located a preposterous boxy outfit, pea green vintage Austrian evening wear, at Cheap Jack’s on Broadway, a block north of the palace of dust known as the Strand bookstore—8 Miles of Books that would somehow eventually stretch into 18 Miles of pulp without requiring a change of address nor magician David Copperfield’s caped help. We had discussed registering at the Strand to complete our collection of literature like others registered at Macy’s to collect a set of fine china, but never got around to it.
From leftover dress material Gail stitched me a velvet vest to go with the jacket and out of the last swatch of excess fabric created a ceremonial bag to contain the matrimonial knot we planned to tie in a three-foot length of glossy white nautical rope I procured at Bruno’s Hardware on Court Street in Brooklyn and presented to Anna in a crumpled brown bag one night. I couldn’t afford an engagement ring. Rather than getting fucking depressed about the matter I came up with a counter plan. (It didn’t occur she might think I was giving her a way out, a noose to hang herself with, before it was too late.) Tilting with the enthusiasm of an impulse shopper I described what that rope was for and she looked into the bag again, looked at me again. “It’ll be fun!” I assured her. She caught up to the concept quick. How unique! She did not need a rock. She still had that rock in the grate.
But would we really grab opposite ends of a length of ship hemp in front of thirty people and play tug-of-war after slipping on matching bands—grape cluster design—found the previous summer at South Dakota’s Empire Mall? We really did after a very short ceremony officiated by Victor, Anna’s high school Latin teacher at St. Ann’s school. White knot went into the drawstring bag where it would remain until removed for tightening on our first anniversary. Mixed tape made by Anna’s cool sister Allison clicked on again. Guests danced to Magic Sam’s “Lookin’ Good”— Peter Tosh’s “Ketchy Shuby”—Tina Turner’s “Fool in Love”—Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”—P. Funk’s “Up for the Down Stroke.” I cried tears of joy for the first time. Together we had the best shot at loosening the grip of our fears and tightening the grip our dreams. Outside, on Fulton Mall, street vendors sold mufflers. For the first time did not attack a seafood buffet with both hands: I was too stunned to eat much.
That night, if the rock in the grate had had ears, it would have discerned the swoon of our voices down the block, departing from 11 Schermerhorn to catch the last commuter train to Montauk, a deserted resort town on Long Island’s tip, the perfect anti-tropical honeymoon spot for solitary writers who loved nothing more than to be left alone, granted the private space that fed creation, but who naturally excelled at crowding that space too. We were starving in ways young artists starve in America without starving, not actually. She’d had three oysters, one flute of J. Roget cut-rate champagne, something, but far less than my false famine of one crab cake and five oysters and four flutes. With us we lugged old paperbacks, new notebooks, maps. We mostly consisted of sweat-sweet layers. Waiting were grass-frizzed dunes, cacophonous inky swells of winter ocean, a corner room on the second story of the Born Free motel—key under doormat—and a vending machine where I would clunk clunk purchase Anna a cola after midnight. (The wrong thing, the depth charge of sugar and carbonation sickened her hollow stomach.) Had the rock in the grate lips, they might have cried in our wake: “Lots of luck, Kids! I’ll believe your grand plans when they happen! Look how long I’ve been left hanging, neither here nor there!”
Though the rock was once exclusively a daughter’s find, from our vows onward—like every nugget of her history, every Iowa tatter of mine—it existed to fit, or not to fit, into a marriage’s accumulating terra. We couldn’t know an ounce of shale was one of the more reliable elements we shared—but, well, it turned out to be.
What iffy ambitions were proclaimed as we waited in the filth-flecked Atlantic Avenue station (where the Barclays Center now stands) for our sooty LIRR wedding carriage with its seats the hue of dried blood superintended by grouchy conductors? What did we sweep aside sleep to discuss then and on the 150-mile trip and the next day too, when we woke around noon, blinking? There were the trivial plans involving pancake breakfasts and the upcoming holiday—choosing ornaments at Montauk’s sole open boutique, Claudia’s Carriage House, to adorn the Christmas tree we’d soon pick at the stand in front of Tripoli Restaurant—and the revolutionary plan recently announced to her gulping parents and the Thanksgiving turkey too.
We were moving to Sioux Falls, South Dakota! Why? wondered her suddenly grim father, Jim. We told him the city had an airport—Joe Foss Field!—containing an old diner where the best caramel rolls in America were served. Her mother tried to clap: enthusiasm? Silently she put her hands together. She loved good rolls too.
The silence grew louder. Anna’s shoe brushed mine. We exchanged a quick look of utmost solidarity. We balanced glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau, feeling liberated just because we declared we were. Yet this much was logical: for duty-frazzled oldest children, the best wiggle out of authority’s grasp would be evolving a set of daft new responsibilities able, at least temporarily, to displace crushing old ones.
I rather doubt we would have been able to stand firm at that moment in the Wiese dining nook, but we did not have to. We sat firm—until I started quivering like tapioca as warmth migrated from my limbs to a hammering heart. Then it was time to be quiet and deploy an invisible shield of righteous conjectures. We are not marrying to grow up but to grow, see? Look at adults—the weariness, brittleness, regret, bitterness. Who would want helpings of that crap? We are not marrying to be stuck but to elude a sensibleness we cannot believe will nurture our lives as sayers of what we need to say, instead of what others wish us to say for their miserable comfort!
Finally Jim—the hunched over shock of blondish hair—lit a Winston. “Okay,” he inhaled. It wasn’t approval, we could hear. It was his something to say. He was caring in his way by glaring. To him a return the Midwest, where he had grown up as the sad only child of an insurance man, would be suicide. He was Assistant General Counsel for Macy’s, a Met’s fan, a reader Robert Heinlein and the Wall Street Journal, the jazz aficionado who had methodically taped programs by WRVR’s mellifluous DJ Ed Beach, WKCR’s encyclopedic Phil Schaap. Anna and I were jarring romantics.
Romantics miscalculate. They do it singly. In tandem. They do it when young and when older. It’s part of why we exist—to debauch equations—and my gravest miscalculation back then involved a half-understanding I carried into the first lovely day of married life, December 10th, 1989, in a frigid shuttered community that to us was packed end-to-end with the fun of feeling like New York Governor Mario Cuomo had for a wedding gift given us the entire state for one day to enjoy by our lonesome.
Swinging Anna’s plump mitten, leaning into wind careening off the ocean that never closed for business, gusts shooting up inclines of hard tan sand to hack pale dune stems, I correctly comprehended my lover needed someone to encourage her renegade impulses after a childhood of high anxiety, yet failed to see intellectual and spiritual support might be useless unless bolstered by a material contribution to help make pursuit of the wild more plausible. I didn’t allow myself to think that, for had I, I would have had to agree the right person for Anna was not me, unpublished writer of fabulist fiction employed as a secretary for fabulist patent attorneys with an office on lower Broadway. (The small firm represented disgraced car maker John DeLorean’s concept for a pedestrian crosswalk conveyer belt to—I could only think—keep his NYC legal team from being struck by cabs as they darted around Midtown. Often, in lieu of traditional fees, Mr. Coleman and Mr. Sudol accepted a vested interest in inventions conjured by cash poor geniuses. For example: 25% of any profits ever earned by a device originally designed to produce frozen pancakes that the Arizonan Mr. Richards had converted into a gadget to flash-freeze umbilical cords, preserving stem cells for use decades later when the infant had liver cancer. Clients were as ridiculously ahead of the times as we romantics were behind them.)
The love I had on offer = all clouds and kisses. It was all fine anyway? It was said her squeezing mitten. I could—and did—tell myself it had to do with the worth of those clouds, those kisses, but of course it just had to do with her letting it all be fine.
Astonishingly, she had loved me exactly how I was—defiant pockets stuffed with story notes not cash, Buddy Holly eye-frames, E flat keen—since the January 1987 afternoon we met in the NYU English Department. And I loved her as she was—the lyric density of paragraphs, Brooklyn street smarts (“We’ll take the Lex to Yorkville.” “The Lex?” “The Lexington Line.” “Oh. Sure.”), organizational acumen coupled with free flowing linen scarves and pink hat with the brim folded up like a morning glory calling it a night. Nothing, we agreed, was of more value to us than independence. To keep it we would sacrifice what we had to sacrifice. We would ignore what—and who—we had to ignore. If others thought we were inane so be it. What mattered was what we thought of us. Wonderful that resounded. Were we brave? Yes? No? Doomed? Certainly! We wouldn’t be Romantics in good standing if not.
Yet our gambit seemed like a safe one on a desolate honeymoon Montauk beach. We were making immediate progress maintaining our integrity against tall odds! What restrictive social edicts—what disappointing institutions—what glum gate-keepers—were around to tell us what a marriage consisted of, how to express ourselves, where to live, when to feel successful? Wind filled clothing like the sudden enactment of a manifesto that was elementary but which, being worriers, we spent a two-year courtship cultivating, bolstering, propping up. Independence was one name for it. Another was flight. Laughing lurches on slanting sand bumped us against the very girth of the vision of flying everywhere we might go together, over pine trees and over mountains, coat sleeves for woolen wings. White winter light curled on the cusp of waves purring over a shore of many reds grays blacks before incrementally receding, rucked yellowish foam fur of an oceanic feline. Gulls clamored like populist rabble cheering on the broad sentiments flickering within.
We filled coat pockets with the prettiest mottled stones and silken green sea glass, grateful Jim was not was around to exclaim Christ, I was right! and call 911 to report young writers committing suicide Virginia Woolf style. We walked with, then against, the gale, exposed skin stinging until it felt like our faces were ringing bells.
“It’s set, then…” we declared, warming in the hurricane candle gloom of Shagwong Bar and Grill. Here, locals bragged, Paul Simon went to watch baseball playoff games it was no fun to watch in a mansion on a cliff. Neon spelled out the bar’s name vertically in swerving pink glows. We raised Rolling Rocks—our romance beer, sipped at Jimmy Day’s on West 4th and The Blue & Gold on East 7th, but not The Corner Bistro on Jane with its literary regulars in Greek Fishermen’s hats swaying on stools as if to elude the jabs of their own brutal thoughts about how short they had fallen. There we drank McSorley’s amber ale. “Set!” Clink, clink. To Sioux Falls!
I loved the way her face looked when she proclaimed it. Her face opened up with exertion. Pushing herself like I was pushing myself, weakness could be overcome, history could be subverted. Though my Midwest upbringing had generally been miserable (generally that’s usually the only way I could think about it then, very generally) I might wildly cheer on her scheme without fibbing. I had always wanted to crawl out of the family mosh pit, pursue an alternate fate as valet to bow-tie-appended neighbor Hickey or as loudmouth peanut vendor across the river in Illinois. Even a life in the Mississippi, as a whiskered catfish, appealed. The leaner the year the fatter my speculations. Wanton reveries in control again, I projected I could, when out there with Anna, vanquish demons as…Caramel Roll Man.
We twisted shiny rings on our fingers this way, that, like safecrackers trying out number combinations. The precious metal was called Black Hills gold but was not black—tinged rose and green, pastel colors of sunset, meadow. “Yes, set!” Next stop: South Dakota! How long did it take to arrive? Only about twenty-six years.
A dream deferred, wrote poet Langston Hughes, festers. It sags, stinks, explodes, but—we can add—when exploding does not necessarily disintegrate.
Our property on West 10th Street in Sioux Falls, when glimpsed from the back, is a different property than the one seen from the front, a phantasmal double-ness simpatico with a mistake people have been making about us since we began veering around Greenwich Village as a couple. Hearing the threnody of my voice, seeing my arms move as if conducting that business, it is assumed I grew up in New York City. Hearing Anna’s voice, seeing how the rest of her settles around those considered notes, it is usually assumed she grew up in the Midwest, maybe even on a farm.
The backyard is long and abundant. In the fall it fills with crickets, then leaves. The early morning cricket keen pools in the basement to a piercing B Movie effect. Out here, one famous (to us) summer evening, we met the calico Maine Coon cat that now lives in our home, dear Pilar aka fluffernut. She was thin at first sight. But strong. From a dead stop she could leap onto the top of the five foot fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s yard. We saw her the next night, along with five colorful kittens sipping at her tummy. We designated the litter Mr. Gray, Bowie, Eliot, Dreamsickle, Avalon. We put out water and dry food for Pilar. Once when I was doing this I encountered her return offering of respect: a perfectly decapitated brown rabbit placed next to the empty steel food bowl. When the kittens were weaned we caught each suspicious creature with a Rube Goldberg contraption I rigged up involving string plus a baited portable kennel. I sat at dusk, across the yard from the trap, ready to yank. The local no kill shelter arranged their adoptions. Every time I am outside I wonder where her five are leaping now and, too, lift my eyes to note that hole in one of the screen windows in my office. It was made by an innocent errant bird within months our arrival here but in shape, and size, resembles the rips in screen in the bedroom where I was molested by my odd mother, the attorney—reminding me daily that any such thing as an alternate fate is correctly impossible, that any life deleting the ugliness would create a worse crisis.
The emerald ash borer has reached Sioux Falls and the tree back here has been inoculated by Mike, our tree man, to save it. An indigenous grapevine has of late overtaken the back fence with the green crawl of its question-mark-shaped tendrils. They have gone so far as to tickle the back green-painted cinder blocks of the one story building that was once the workshop of a man known as Fred the Fixer, and before that a small mattress factory. This wall bookends one side of the yard. The other bookend is the garage where Anna’s bike is parked. Seeing her pedaling that just bought bike toward me on 10th Street as I was trudging home from a horrid Youth Center day ducking pool cues counted as an early happiest memory of Here.
In season we harvest tomatoes from a raised bed under Anna’s first floor office window: Jimmy’s Italian Hearts, Cherokees, Black Beauties. We snip stems of herbs in pots resting on nearby wire shelving: rosemary, Greek oregano, basil, thyme, tarragon. Amidst inherited plantings (bee balm, day lilies…) and new plantings (willow, forsythia, hydrangeas, rhododendron), I constructed a circular fire-pit, spreading buckets of pinkish quartzite on a bare spot where grass had been killed by a trampoline belonging to the property’s previous owners, bouncy Pastor Shelby and family. While engaged in the work I felt as if I were going about the good business of actively shoring up our marriage and our writing pursuit against the next challenges, whatever direction they might issue from. Is the battle to protect what we treasure that causes its value to steadily escalate? The firepit is a touch of Atlantic coast. I surrounded that core of rocks with larger stones hauled off the pile at Anna’s Aunt Pat’s farm-place as a peacock sounded the alarm on an outbuilding roof. Quartzite happens to be a harder than diamonds. When it rains the rocks turn redder as if blushing over a blue joke the wind told. The wind blows a lot. Dry wind, and it picks fights with flags and ball caps (Twins, Vikings, Huskers) and it ruptures the bulbous figures of black cats and other inflatable holiday characters now part of Midwest holiday decoration protocol. Bunny ears and tails wither. Santa’s airy flab curls, collapses. Eight months out of the year, between the fire pit I built and the elderly one car garage, silverish oval aspen leaves flit on thin branches like applauding rows of hands in an Orpheum of light.
The front yard is the shocker. It is minuscule: one of a set of green postage stamps along the block. Two young lilac varieties I planted soon after arrival—Betsy Ross and Abraham Lincoln—loom over one side of the stamp. On the other side is a small Montmorency cherry tree that produces sour but edible fruit. In-between stretches the short cracked path that—like the torn office screen—I want, and want not to, repair: this address’s irreplaceable version of a Roman road. WWI and WWII and Korean War and Vietnam War and Iraq War soldiers walked it when leaving or returning. Cement is pebbled as if studded with spat olive pits. The first owners of the house ran a shoe store downtown. The Pettigrew Heights neighborhood counts as one of the most densely populated locales in an otherwise spacious and sparsely populated state. A massage therapist and his family of five (soon to be six) reside directly across the street. Next to Zach lives the Guatemalan contractor. We are sandwiched between paranoid retiree Judy (with white German Shepherd guard dog Spirit, 34 shotgun) and the squat goat-bearded lead singer of the ‘80s cover band Wrench and his girlfriend the veterinarian’s assistant. Three doors down is one of the few Democratic state senators, an economics professor happy to talk Marx and Piketty. A couple of blocks away, in May of 1900, under a tent, the Fusion faction of the Populist Party nominated Williams Jennings Bryan to run against Republican McKinley. Drug busts happen between here and that rusty plaque. One night a red sports car missed a nearby curve and flipped over. Last year a drunken diabetic woman walked right into the house and my arm that gently led her out to the same front yard where, last week, I picked up a pale rock and turned it over, found myself staring at a drawn smiley face next to the words: Go fuck yourself. The message we suspect was jotted by the twitching guy who occupied the front step one afternoon for a few hours when Anna was alone at the house and I at the latest day job. In the other direction, a short walk away, stands the university auditorium where Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Luther Adams played a recording of his piece “Become Ocean” then confessed that though he had started out as an activist artist in the 1970s addressing environmental issues, his work for many years has been about nothing in particular, which is another way of saying it is about everything. When New York City friends tell us they still worry about us out here in a place they do not know, we explain that we live in the Queens of South Dakota, classes and ethnicities mixing it up, and they either believe us or don’t.
For in addition to gooey caramel rolls and slices of sour cream raison pie and Pork T sandwiches and bolts of blue sky and affordable antique stores and cool lakes to swim or fish in, we have here sought out the ruggedness of the urban, and there is a reason. If hanging on in New York taught us that non-selling writers probably do not belong in such an expensive place, we learned by not moving to South Dakota for a quarter century that we probably did not belong here either. A signal instruction of the affair is we don’t fit in anywhere, as I say to Anna, she to me, laughing like this were an achievement as we watch the blue legs of fireplace flames do the limbo, sliding under logs. We belong to nowhere, to nothing, it seems, but an attachment to each other and writing—twin devotions collated into a single moody symphony of sounds seeping from our exchanges, drifting over a hodge-podge of landscapes we put together, take apart, put together again. Out here I heard an ocean! Adam’s sea.
The delay in arriving is a story to get to. The faith is what to start with. There is a sorrowing that is this faith, and a humor, and a paralysis—a sprint that is faith, a harmony, a disruption—an answer that is faith, a questioning, and a 36.8 mile drive that it is, ending at Blue Mound State Park across the border in Minnesota.
We park in the paved lot on the hill near the Interpretive Center that in the 1960s was home to Fredrick Manfred, the tall writer who delivered the eulogy at Sinclair Lewis’s funeral. Manfred’s novel Lord Grizzly was nominated for the National Book Award. The first spot Anna showed me in her magical Midwest was this spot. That was the summer of 1988. She showed it to me because her life has been a quest to hear herself think and the quest began right here. Manfred built his haven into the ridge. Imagine, if you can, a ranch house crossed with a sod house. Our eyes linger on smudged picture windows staring at us from underground as we stroll toward the mowed Quarry Trail. It is not a long path. It is paralleled by an enigmatic line of quartzite stones that align with the sun during the summer solstice and the winter solstice. Nobody knows who placed the rocks there. When the grass is tall those lichen-spotted pink boulders are hidden. Depending upon the month, the cut (often mushy, tundra-like) turf is fringed by wild strawberries, violets, larkspur, thistles, confetti-like flutter of cabbage moths, moss with a Scottish attitude or just a helluva a lot of brown. Reaching the quarry we find our favorite rock table to sit on and sit carefully, avoiding cacti quills that fill crevices. It’s one of those places in the present where the turbulence of history turns into a sea to see across. From here we can see the NYU building on 19 University Place where we met. The cozy bay window of our Harlem Co-op apartment on Convent Avenue where we lived for thirteen years. The green awning of The Montana, the six-story brick building where Anna’s parents still live in Brooklyn Heights. Our other apartments on President Street, Union Street, Sackett Street. We look out at farmland stretching toward the town of Magnolia. Here fears flatten out like that land—the terror of inadequacy we’ve each lived with for so long, letting down the people we love, failing the dreams we love, and in doing so remaining half-made entities, half-baked names, splinters of humanity. We gaze up at ragged winds of circling buzzards. We stare down the bottom of the defunct quarry, scattered with quartzite rubble ambitious school groups re-arrange to create a visual gift to the gods: peace signs and hearts and crosses. Rock climbers, if there, climb silently. The solitude, the quiet, the cotton clouds briefly wrap us in safety. Forces that might foil our mid-life expedition can’t reach us here, we trust, just as when we lived in New York descending down the red stairwell of the jazz club the Village Vanguard delivered us to an impenetrable and perfectly organized 4/4 cove where all that mattered was art and not talking while it was being made on the bandstand by Bobby Hutcherson, Renee Rosnes, Billy Drummond. At the quarry we do not so much dream as re-muster the will to keep dreaming the next day when menial employment and the complexities ambitious of writing must be attended in turn, around other things, including the dread roiling spirits here, as everywhere else, in the desultory dizzying age of the Great Pretender, Trump. The going on, it takes taking the deep breath on an edge where there is the most O2 available. A big breath like the one we took in September of 2001 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, watching Manhattan burn. A few weeks before we had signed a contract to buy an apartment on that island. Like the chill lung-jingling newlywed inhalations on the beach in Montauk followed by the exhaling of such gusts of yearning that the gale might still be said to be filling our rippling sails. Like the furtive breath of a child on bare knees on Schermerhorn Street beyond the imprisoning notice of any adult, pushing, pushing, starting to locate herself in her profound dislocation, adding a rock to a grate with such adeptness it remained there for forty Brooklyn summers and forty Brooklyn winters, stepped on by thousands never knowing a rarity was underfoot, cornerstone of an identity—a pointer forward to rely on—her way out.
Ben Miller is the author of River Bend Chronicle (Lookout Books). His prose has been featured in Best American Essays, Best American Experimental Writing, One Story, Southern Review, AGNI, New England Review, Raritan, Yale Review, Antioch Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Photo: Andrew Childress/Unsplash