What we do when there is nothing to do is the thing we do most often. Thursday is that day for me, but many days more than once a week feel like Thursday. I start the day with a shower and then take the dogs out. While the dogs are out, I brew a pot of coffee, which I will slowly drink over the next couple of hours while typing and erasing sentences, then typing the same sentences, again. And erasing, again. Outside my window, the neighbors come out of their houses with briefcases and backpacks, open car doors, thump the doors shut, and vroom, vroom to work or school. But I stay mulishly fixed on my computer screen. Once I’ve finished the pot of coffee and I’ve run out of sentences and deleted three-quarters of my morning work, I wonder what I will do with the rest of the day. It is frequently the case that nothing remains.
But this Thursday, that is, two Thursdays ago, I ran an errand for my wife.
It took an hour to pick up lunch from King Neptune. The fried shrimp and scallop basket, Caesar salads, flounder plates, Szechuan peppercorn calamari, crab cake sandwiches, the lemon peppered chicken. It took another hour to drive the food to the hospital where my wife works. And that was it. An entire day’s worth of obligations settled.
I had packed my camera bag just in case. In case of what, I didn’t know. But I was on the other side of the county and a drive around seemed prudent. Heading west, I stumbled on a cotton field, a cleared spot of earth with just a single tree and shredded branches and burnt trunks; I passed a swamp hiking down to the Cape Fear River, where I nearly stepped on a northern black racer, or maybe it was a black rat snake. I waded knee deep through a patch of asters humming with a colony of bees.
Singletary Lake State Park was just a couple of miles down the road. The sign said it was a group camp. So, I pulled into the office area and asked if it was okay for me to explore around the campsite. I’m quite certain I interrupted her crossword puzzle or Facebook experience. Since no group was at the park, she said, it was certainly okay for me to explore, but I needed to be out by 5 o’clock because they close the gate.
I hiked a mile or two across sandy shrubland and then backtracked my course looking for the lake, which I easily found by coursing through a well-worn trail. The lake was obstructed by trees and brush and spider webs and fallen branches and weedy undergrowth, but, eventually, the trail fed itself into a long dock stretching deep into the lake.
Through a camera lens the lake appeared even more impressive. My wide-angle lens broadened the lake beyond the dimensions of the eye. The surface shimmered the blue sky with a counterfeiter’s exactness, and the dock itself extended beyond the horizon. An elliptical or oval depression, how the lake formed is something of an enigma. Meteor strike, wind work, an underground spring, no one much knows how the lake came to be, but I like the idea that a fireball from the sky punctured the earth’s surface and left a nice habitat for sweet bay, loblolly bay, and red bay trees. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be locked in the park overnight.
Just when I am wondering how it is that I am sitting on this perfect lake alone, I noticed that someone was fishing at the end of the dock. He had been sitting on an upturned bucket, fixed like a statue. I walked up and saw a dog crouching in the shade underneath a bench. The dog seemed as still as the man, and if the man had not turned to face me, I might have thought I was walking through a picture.
“You catching anything?”
“Oh no,” he said. “Just little catfish.”
“You seen anyone else today?”
“Uh-uh. My old lady was a gonna come but she just sat in her chair.”
“So, this is your lake today?”
“Figure it must be or something. Nobody much comes out here.” His cornbread drawl and tortoise amble veiled his true age, which I suspected was a good bit younger than mine. The tip of his pole started twitching and then bent over. “Oh man, oh man,” he said with a flat, untroubled pace. “You must be good luck. He’s fit to be tied,” he said as he grabbed the pole and started to fight the fish. The dog poked his head up with a sort of causal amusement. The fishing line pull away from the dock with an impressive gusto. “Why he’s wound up tighter than a clock.” And then the line went limp.
“Did he come off?”
“I reckon he did,” he said reeling in. “Well wait, there he is. Why, he ain’t no bigger than a scooter.”
He pulled the little cat fish out of the water and let me take his picture. The dog laid his head back down and resumed his nap.
“I better get out of here,” I said. “They lock the gate at five. I guess they don’t know you’re here.”
“Oh, they do. I called’em and told’em that I was gonna be fishing.” He had unhooked the fish and was tossing it back into the water when he said, “You go grow up now, hear?” He looked back at me. “I’m just down yonder.”
“Okay man, good luck.”
I drove a few miles to Elizabethtown and saw a billboard for Melvin’s, which suggested it was one of the must eat restaurants in North Carolina. The restaurant was closing soon and was near vacant. Three people stood behind the grill watching the clock. A greasy perfume laden the restaurant like steam from a hot shower.
“I understand this is one of the best places to eat in North Carolina,” I said to the young lady behind the counter as I walked in.
“Yes, it is,” she said. Her pale complexion and dark, brown freckles were her only notable features. She stood behind the register as though behind a moat or a castle wall.
“So, what’s good here?”
I looked at the menu fixed to the wall above the cashier’s head. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and cheeseburgers. That was it. Fortunately, everything was good. The cheeseburgers were $2.70, so I ordered three.
“How you want’em, sug?”
The menu didn’t list tomato, ketchup, lettuce, mayo, or anything except chili, mustard, onion and slaw, which was called all the way. “I guess I’ll have them all the way,” I said. She punched in a few numbers on the cash register, and before she could tell me my total, the two ladies behind the grill stacked three all-the-way cheeseburgers on the counter. And dutifully their gaze returned to the clock on the wall.
“Oh,” the moated lady said. “There’s that gay man.” Her affect was as pale and fair as her skin, and her laggard voice solicited the company of fatigue and tedium.
I looked in the direction she had indicated, and the clock on the wall lost the devotion of the two other employees. A man across the street was walking by the Hibachi Chinese restaurant. “I love gay men,” she said. “There so much nicer than regular men.” Her co-workers moaned in agreement and looked away.
“I think I’m offended,” I said.
“Well, be nicer and you don’t have to be offended,” she said.
I ate my cheeseburgers, wiped my mouth, and drove out to Jones Lake State Park to watch the sunset. I hiked a short trail to a small overlook with a park bench and tried to take pictures of the sun silhouetting a moss burdened tree. I propped my foot on a fallen branch crisscrossing the smallest of bays and risked the lake in order to weed out the tree nubs and swamp scowl littering the foreground. I repositioned, put a little more weight on the tree branch, and snap. The tree branch cracked open, my foot fell into the water and punctured through the boggy lake bottom. I could feel my body twisting in slow motion, trying to find buoyance between gravity and motion. Time slowed. I was falling in the lake. I cared less about getting soaked and caked with swampy mud than I did about destroying my camera. My hand instinctively raised the camera above my head and miraculously that position somehow arrested my fall. My shoe and foot were soaked, but the rest of me, and, more importantly, my camera, were safe.
I sat on the bench for a while imaging my life without my camera. So much of everything is bound up in my camera, my computer, and my coffee pot. I could learn to live without my coffee pot, I supposed. But not my camera and computer. I could lose my house, my bed, indoor plumbing; I could learn to live in my tent, in the back woods, take up the drifter’s life, but, besides the company of my wife, I need so very little. But still, these few things I need, do they curb my experience of life or are they just evidence that I am alive?
I didn’t know, and the idea of exploring these thoughts felt pedantic and melodramatic – besides who was I kidding. I couldn’t live without my coffee.
There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and it occurred to me that I could stop on my way home and do a few more shots of the Milky Way. I pulled into the Whitehall Plantation Game land and set up my tent to use as a subject for the foreground. I put a light inside of my tent, and started snapping up pictures. A ground fog creep out of the distant woods and started filling up the field. But before it took over, I had exposed for two hours.
What I didn’t know was that later that night astronomers in Hawaii would point at the same sky and see an asteroid passing through our solar system. There’s nothing much unusual about an asteroid, but this is the first asteroid, or comet, that has been observed that came from a different star system. After getting a gravity assist from our sun, the object is now moving 27 miles per second out of our solar system. It will travel uninterrupted for billions of years through the emptiness of space until eventually something happens to it. Until then, every day will be Thursday.
The space between the stars, the vast nothing of the universe, the nothingness of Thursday: errands and small conversations, a hamburger shop and bumble bees, the big bang and a passing asteroid, it is all mostly nothing. Tiny fluctuation and inconsequential variations in an otherwise divine void, Thursday. Thursday, the day of chalice and bread, that moment of betrayal and anguished prayer, the day before nothing ended and something began. What we do when there is nothing to do is the thing we do most often.