By Sean Dempsey, 07/27/23
Near dusk, the old man sat at a weathered table in the back corner of a busy diner, fumbling awkwardly with metal tongs used to crack his lobster. There was a gentle buzz of conversation in the air all around. It was nearly impossible to distinguish one conversation from another without tremendous effort. Nor did the man try to do so; he was there alone with his thoughts and his shellfish, and was happy to leave it at that.
The window glass was thin and blotched. He could hear the gulls outside fighting for some scrap of sea trash or another. He looked absentmindedly out the window and saw the sun descending in the distance. The light was losing its daily battle to falling darkness; the blue sky desperately fought for dominance against the crimson hues that warred against it.
The man put down his clumsy tool and stared into the disappearing light. Through the blotched and stained diner windows he could stare directly at the dimming sun without flinching. That piercing white light that blinded when looked at directly, he could peer at dead-on now behind a dirty windowpane. It masked the blinding radiance and allowed him to view the elusive light-giver with his bare eyes. But what was there to see? A dying orb fighting a losing battle with a coming night. He looked away and returned to his meal.
He had visited this port town in Maine many decades before. Now he was here again, passing through, for reasons he himself didn’t even know. It hadn’t changed much. For that he was pleased, although he didn’t quite know why. He was a far younger man then, and held big dreams. Dreams perhaps too big and too fanciful to ever be realized. He remembered wanting more than anything to be a great adventurer, a great lover—a great anything, really—rolling around the country on his motorcycle, in pursuit of passion and life. And maybe he had found those things, he didn’t really know. But even if he had, what was the point, he mused. Happiness was in the doing, he figured, not in getting what one wanted.
He gazed around the restaurant absentmindedly. Happiness. What even did that word mean? He didn’t think he knew or could hope to know what that meant. Were these local sea-town people happy? Had they found life’s secrets? Or were they just busy eating and smiling? He looked through the windowpane again. One of the gulls had been victorious over the others. It held a half-eaten burger patty in its beak. It looked pleased.
He had been pleased too, once. Perhaps he still was now. Who was to say, really? He had had a good life. His three sons were all grown up now; he had had a mostly pleasant marriage—twice he’d done so, in fact. He had had a stable and “good job,” as everyone called it for nearly 40 years. He had lived well. Why did he now feel such emptiness? Time seemed to move more slowly in these winter years of his life, although in his heart he knew that was quite impossible.
He miscalculated. The sea battle wasn’t over. A new gull, this one dotted with large black specks, swooped in at the owner of the mangled hamburger as it pecked at the wet meat on the wooden dock. This battle may wage on for some time, the man thought. And no matter who won, there would be fresh battles tomorrow over fresh meat. And the next day, and the next. As long as there were scraps to fight over, there were epic wars to wage. And the caustic screeching of the gulls as the red fire sky loomed over them would continue through eternity, as it always had.
The man turned toward a family just seated next to him. It appeared to be a mother and father with their young daughter. She was perhaps 5 or 6 years old. She had deviously deep blue eyes that shone brightly. That caught him off guard. She looked at him and smiled. He smiled back.
“What’s that?” she asked him, turning around in her chair and pointing at his barely-touched plate.
He smiled again. “This? This is a big sea bug. It’s called a ‘lobster.’”
The mother and father were looking intently at the drink menus and not paying much attention.
“Yuck. A bug? That’s disgusting.”
“What do you like to eat, young lady?”
“I like noodles. Just pasta and noodles. And sometimes fruit.” She spoke matter of factly, as if these were the only foods in the world worth considering.
“That sounds good, too. My bug is pretty tasty, through. Maybe your mommy and daddy will share some with you…”
“Ugh! I will never eat bugs. No no no. Never. Just pasta.” She turned around and began playing with a stuffed animal she had with her. Her father looked up from his menu and smiled at the old man. “This place any good? We just arrived in town.”
The old man looked up, the unexpected smile falling from his face. “Oh, it’s as good as any other around here, I suppose. I’m just passing through myself. You can’t go wrong when getting seafood in Maine.”
The father seemed satisfied with this response and went back to staring at his menu. The gulls still squawked outside.
A song came over the restaurant speakers just then. If there was music playing before, the old man hadn’t heard it. But it was impossible to miss now. He knew this song well. It was an old pop song. The din of the surrounding conversations seemed to die away slightly. He went to stare out the window again, but the small girl next to him stood up on her chair. She began to sway and dance with the rhythm.
Her parents still weren’t paying much attention and the chairs were rickety. His heart skipped a beat for a moment as he watched her dance. It wasn’t safe to stand on that chair; her small blue summer dress swayed childishly to the tune. “The Long and Winding Road” played on and he couldn’t look away. Something happened in his mind as he stares at the young girl—that dancing girl with blue eyes.
He’s transported. All of a sudden with a rush of blinding light and the rough smell of sea foam, the old man is 16 again, long ago; it’s still twilight outside. The air is brisk, but he doesn’t feel it. He looks over and sees his date still in the car. She is dropping him off, of course. His curfew! Oh, he’s a dead man. His parents will kill him. But he doesn’t care. She is so beautiful with her big blue eyes and her hair is tangled from earlier in the evening…
He gets out of the car and comes over to her side as the car idles. He bends down to her window and puts his head inside. “I won’t let you leave me without one more goodbye kiss.”
“You’re so late already. But here…” she pecks him on the cheek with a giggle.
“Not good enough!” the boy flings open the door and grabs her arms to pull her out of the car. “I won’t let that be our final goodbye this summer. You kiss me right.”
The song on the car radio changes. A pop song starts up. She reaches up and kisses him on the mouth. Quickly at first, then softly, then more passionately. The boy pulls her to him and his arms are completely around her. Finally they part. “I love you, you know,” he says in a whisper staring into her eyes. “I’ve loved you all summer. I think I’ll love you forever.”
The song on the radio reaches its chorus. The girl looks up at the boy, her blue eyes misting, then turns and, unexpectedly, jumps on the hood of her car. She gets on the roof, and begins to dance to the music. Her blue sun dress moves to the rhythm of the tune.
The boy is in awe of the girl. She’s wild. She’s beautiful. She’s fearless and free. She’s dancing in the twilight, looking him in the eyes…
But the young girl in the diner is there too! He sees her in the same exact moment, out of time. They both look down at him, in unison, both moments happening simultaneously. Their blue eyes are both shining like emeralds. Like blue suns washing over him and cancelling out the red sky above.
And he knows. He knows in his being he isn’t just REMEMBERING this gentle moment of yesteryear; he’s there in both places and times simultaneously.
He pulls away from the young girl so as not to cause her concern from a stranger. He just stares into her blue eyes as she dances. Both moments are real, happening together.
For this minute, time is folding in on itself. In fact, as he considers what’s happening he understands… he perceives that time itself is a lie. It’s all happening, all the time and inside every moment is another, all happening simultaneously.
The song plays on, the summer dresses twirl, the blue eyes stay fixed on him…
“And still they lead me back … To the long winding road…” 🎶
The boy stares at the girl; she dances gracefully and she stares back at him. The old man stares at the little girl; she dances awkwardly and stares around the room. The two moments are one; the two moments are a million miles away.
The pop song finally ends. It was perhaps 4 or 5 minutes, but it lasts a lifetime.
He lends a hand and helps the girl down from the car roof. He reaches out a hand and helps the small girl in the chair from falling as she loses her balance. The parents thank him and excuse themselves for not watching her better. “My pleasure,” he whispers, “you have a lovely daughter.”
He pays for his food, leaving cash on the table along with a generous tip, and moves for the exit. The girl pulls away and drives home, with his kiss still warm on her lips.
The sea birds outside the restaurant squawk at him as he exits. The red sky overlooking the ocean is worn thin and almost completely faded; it will soon become a pale grey and eventually black as night. As it’s done before, will do again—and as it is forever infinitely doing. Time, via its wild and infinite circles, plays over and over, watching seabirds fight in the dusk and songbirds sing in the day, together, forever.