Age twelve: I dreamed I
would run the machines at the concrete company behind our house, just past the hedge under which we’d build forts and draw maps from one pine tree to the next. The pine trees, the cherry trees, the apple trees would flower and bloom and soon winter would set in. And all the while, I’d run the forklifts, the front loaders, and that rock crusher whose demonic rumble would wake the school kids at seven in the morning, every morning except Sunday. Nights, I’d settle in, pull a TV dinner from the freezer, peel back the foil over the brownie and poke holes in the corn compartment with a fork. The Salisbury steak, brown gravy, mashed potatoes tasted like cardboard and rock dust. And I’d watch Wheel of Fortune and guess the puzzles before the contestants, and I’d believe one day I’d win a showcase prize coffee table to replace ours with the wobbly leg. Maybe even get a colour screen TV to brighten up the dusk, autumn closing in.
Some years later, my back against the picnic table behind the house, the concrete company as asleep as I should have been at that hour, studying the night sky instead, shimmering points of light arranged into stories. I read of Cassiopeia and Pegasus and the Seven Sisters, and I wondered about the Southern Cross, so far from here. Far from here. Where I wanted to be.
Today I’m sitting below deck on a vehicle ferry crossing the Hauraki Gulf to Great Barrier with my Toyota, my wife, and our little boy. He’s five. It’s chilly. Spring has only come upon us the past couple of weeks. It’s calm down here, the room no nonsense. Steel painted white, shadowboxes of preserved sea life tucked into the walls, framed in oak. Carpet squares the colour of butterscotch hay. A rat trap under the seat next to me, pest free island and all. A play mat for the kids on board, my son pushing a firetruck across it, whoosing. A chalkboard, a TV in the next cabin playing a movie. Will all this keep a little boy, prone to seasickness, distracted enough to make the crossing? We’ve three hours left yet. Neither of us will sleep.
The constellations: stories of faith and betrayal, heroes and legends in support and opposition, the stories’ survivors making their own ways. Behind the stories the lights: Betelgeuse and Rigel, giants and dwarfs, and the limits of science and logic and the universe itself. Maybe I wouldn’t operate machines in the stock yard. Maybe I’d fly to the stars.
The ferry cuts across swells, and crashes on the hull resonate in this steel drum of a room. I look at my left foot, bobbing with the ship, and I see the tongue of my shoe drifts to the left. It always does this. Something isn’t quite right about this shoe. Or is my foot funny shaped. Idle thoughts, killing time. All the while the boy pushes the firetruck between seats and down the aisle and up and down the steel walls. I adjust my shoe and the little boy looks up, puzzled, from the seat next to me, his hand glued to a rat trap.
Winters we’d stow the picnic bench behind the toolshed, cover it with an old tablecloth, weighed down with some bricks splotched with white paint from that time we touched up the trim around the house. Sometimes I’d go out at night, crane my neck at some impossible angle, watch the twinkles, retell the stories to myself. The sky clear, the ground quiet with snow, the leaves long gone, the wind silent as birds after dark. And at the university, they say, they have a telescope, aperture a foot across, gathering thousand year old light, focused through your pupil on your retina, in your imagination. Dream: get into the university. Get closer to the stars.
We are at back at the car ferry after a long weekend on The Barrier. The barge they call it, here in Port Fitzroy. The man in the orange vest takes our ticket: five metres of car, two adults, one child who loves firetrucks. The man cracks a joke. Where should I queue I ask. Anywhere there’s space. There’s plenty.
We wait. In the queue ahead, a flat bed truck with sides the height of beer crates, a trailer in tow. Lashed in the bed, a black and tan mutt with a white face, short hair, and long nose. He watches. He watches as the boys tense up some cords, ratchet ties, holding a petrol tank fast to the trailer. I fiddle inside the Toyota, window down a bit. Not that much please, I hear from the back seat. Up a smidge with the electric crank. The boys’ tethering complete, at once they leave to crack open a case of Lion lager their mate picked up at the shop up the hill. The mutt jumps off the bed, giving chase to the boys, and the leash yanks him mid flight and he jerks and swings by neck and lead, dangling, tethered to a winch, silent barks and swollen eyes. I shout to the boys, but they don’t hear through my near-closed window. Out the car. Run. Run goddamnit. A single thought: will the mutt lash out? No matter. The dog on the tips of his paws, cutting slack in the lead, pirouetting. His eyes. My eyes. Run. I take him, his warm haunches pounding in my hands. He’s not as heavy as I imagined, and he doesn’t lash as I wondered. Not so much as a bark, nor whimper. He’s been calm since he saw me break into that dash, and I notice: so have I. Back to the car, next in queue, we carry on. I didn’t look back. Forward toward the wharf ramp, reverse on, the clang of U-bolts, park break. Pause: he’s just a dog. He’ll be alright. Didn’t know any better than a little kid, did he.
Down at The Hub, still Port Fitzroy, they’re open on barge days and Saturdays. Burgers, chips, and a choice of one of two fizzy drinks. I choose ginger beer. As many do, the clerk asks about our accents. California. California plus a few years here, that is. Plus heaps of words I picked up somewhere between punk rock and Plato. “What made you shift to New Zealand,” incredulous, as though paradise is to be found elsewhere.
I’m forty two years old, and you know what I’ve learned: it ain’t geography makes a place paradise. Here it is. Right here. I mean right where my feet meet Earth. Always. Could have found it behind the wheel of a front loader or at the controls of a rock crusher, had I got my mind right back then. But here I am and here it is, right here too on this vehicle ferry some hours later, cold as steel now as the sun sinks and the water blackens to night. An hour out I can see Rangitoto on the horizon. We’ll pass by soon, and from my verandah, were I there, I’d train our telescope on the ship and I’d see me and I’d see the little boy beside me setting up his dominoes again because they keep tumbling with the sea, inside a vessel we watch sail past on Tuesdays, just after noon and again just before eight, depending on the tides and the winds and the skipper’s mood.
I don’t know whether you can say I followed a path, a vision, an intention of any sort. But if you ask me about my dream:
This life is it.
* (This originally appeared at KiwiFamilies.co.nz)