|Benjamin Staudinger, Milky Way, wikimedia commons|
Later, I will be conscious of the fact that being outside at night is one of my favorite things. I will experience a kind of internal exhale when I have an opportunity to just sit out, alone, hearing cars on the highway and the Empire Builder sounding its horn about a mile west of us, beyond the Mississippi. I will love slow hours, watching the moon move, airplanes and satellites, a light breeze shifting the maple tree. This night, though, I have been called away from my basketball—I’m acting out a radio broadcast of a Minnesota Gophers game on a toy hoop taped to the living room paneling—and asked to go out to the garage and check on my father. He has been working for a long time on a complicated repair to his Oldsmobile, and it’s a cold, mid-winter night, so he has the heater on. My mother is worried about the ventilation. “If he’s blue, it’s probably too late,” she tells me. I hurry out the door and immediately feel the heat of my body sucked into the darkness. I run across to the garage and burst through the door: Dad quick-slides out from under the Cutlass on his rolling dolly and says “what the hell?” He looks me up and down. “Not even a jacket?” He’s fine. I step back out and close the door. It must be very cold—by then, I’d heard the stories about throwing a glass of water and watching it freeze in mid-air, the stories about exposure, frostbite, and hypothermia: that in the last moments before you die, you feel an incredible warmth wash over you. So I’m hurrying across the twenty yards of open space between the house and the garage, when I look up at the sky. Out of town where we live, the stars are brilliant, and I notice for the first time that there’s a contour to the array—the column of the Milky Way. A slowness starts to happen, and I feel that I could elapse out there, my eyes pinned to the revolving galaxy. A couple years later, age 10 or so, I would make a fort under the low branches of a pine along the margin where our yard slopes down to the river marsh, and I would have the experience of people searching for me, though I am right there, at the edge of the yard, and would only have to say, “here” to stop everyone panicking. On this night, though, it’s too cold. If I were to lie on my back and stare up at the sky—years later I’d do this on the Black Rock playa, where the cord of the galaxy is even more intensely, vividly visible, and I’d feel a tangible sense of connectivity between our planet’s surface and the surrounding cosmos—within minutes, I would become terrain, ice crystals forming across the surface of my starry eyes. So I turn away, go inside, and inform my mother that her husband is still alive.