When it gets this quiet I like to shut my eyes and pretend. A long time ago, I learned that if I closed my eyes tightly enough and clamped my hands on top, I would see things: little dots at first, then lines, then spirals, just light and dark at first but later colored like a screen saver on my Amiga. Now I understand what the pressure does to my eyes and I know the cold scientific facts behind the phenomenon. But somehow (the tired cliche unexpectedly comes true) the magic is gone; when I try to duplicate the effect, all I see are vague blobs, outlines of a giant spider or a star of David or maybe the telling double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid.

It is cold, but not unpleasant. I think the chill permeates my mind, slows down my thoughts and allows for novel introspections. Outside, the snow has stopped falling from the sky and rests in uniform distribution on the ground, the garage, and the pine trees. The moon is dimmer than it used to be, but a little light penetrates the atmosphere and bounces off the fresh snow. I empathize with the snowflakes, which for the first time in their journey from ice-cold cloud to crystallized descending precipitate are left alone to reflect.

Last night I took out the Christmas trash. Twenty big black contractor bags summed up the excess waste of our house renovations, our modest Christmas dinner, and our abundant Christmas toys. The heaviest of these contained every National Geographic published since 1967, found in the attic when we moved in, relegated to a top shelf, and discarded for lack of any less destructive recourse. The lightest bag simply contained an assortment of boxes in which distant relatives had enclosed packages; out of a George Foreman Grill box, to our surprise, we had extracted presents which were most certainly not George Foreman Grills. Santa Claus himself contributed to the pile; he brought small toys in large cardboard containers, apparently unaware of the environmental consequences of his choices. However, I owe him a certain debt of gratitude for my continued fitness; about three hundred feet separate the end of the driveway from the side of the house where our trash festers during the week, and so I spent a solid hour exercising my muscles hauling garbage.

By the third or fourth trip, I had stopped looking at the street ahead; instead, I turned my eyes to the dimly lit house to my left. It is white, not small but cozy, two-story with an attached garage, and it is the perfect place for the couple that lives there. Steve built most of the furniture by hand, pouring his talent and love into the woodwork, carefully crafting the mantle and the trim for their entire living room. Their cat likes to run from the basement to the upstairs, though she is not quite as quick as she was in days gone by. Time takes its toll on everyone, and although Marian is losing her hearing, she still has plenty of space to practice violin. On the one occasion I've heard her play, her orchestra gave a phenomenal performance; their rendition of Rhapsody in Blue rendered me breathless.

A month ago, Marian had a stroke. She collapsed and her precious head hit Steve's precious mahogany end table, tainting (or sanctifying) it with her blood. Mom, who fortuitously was home, accompanied them on the ambulance and to the hospital. The ER doctors thought Mom was the daughter, questioning her and ignoring Steve until she issued a sharp reprimand. After the paramedics stitched Marian's head up and sent Steve home, Mom offered to chauffeur him to the hospital, but he politely declined; he had to clean (the blood) and preferred to see his wife alone. In happier times, Steve is a wonderfully loquacious man, full of stories, longwinded but worth listening to because he remembers the most exceptional things. He is eighty-nine years old.

Acting on his own discretion, Dad decided to call the couple's children, who live several states away and whom he was lucky to locate. I suppose he did them a favor, letting them know their mother was all right after a major accident (wouldn't you want to know?). The only problem is, now our neighbors are moving out. Their kids helped them decide that they would be better off in a retirement home. They probably can't take their cat, and Steve's beloved furniture has no place in their new home.

They will be safer there, and maybe somehow happier. But as I looked up at their house that night, their temporarily continued residence expressed itself pitifully: the house's few lights shone sadly out into the black night.

Turning my head slightly elicited a jarring contrast, for to my right three regularly-set lights penetrated the darkness on our other proximal neighbor's porch and garage. He is a little obsessive-compulsive regarding his house's upkeep, certainly not a bad trait as long as he isn't demanding that you trim those trees whose upper branches cross the property line by a hair (he does so demand). But he was of little consequence; his lights were bright, but so sharp and focused that they faded quickly over a distance and interfered little outside the limited context of their surroundings.

The real gem in my memory belonged to another lot, still further to my right. Two years had hardly diminshed my memory of dark nights and bright fire.

Someone owned that giant plot of land but all that was there was a "Do not Enter: Private Drive" sign on the dirt path that led through the dense trees to a little run-down shack. Not to be dissuaded, we--that is to say, Mom and I, not some band of hooligans--scoped the place out shortly after we moved in. It was an empty two-story house without basement or electricity or running water. We returned a few months later; having heard that the lot had been bought and the house would soon be demolished, we arrived eager to scavenge. And, after a brief bit of excitement with a collapsing staircase, we liberated a rug under cover of night. The rug was of little use to us--it was as dead as the rusting doorknobs on that old house--but at least we got to see the mysterious interior of that house again.

The next week, the house was burned to the ground. It smoldered for days, choking the winter air with the ashen scent of charred memories. In the intervening two years that dragged me to the present, some soulless developer transformed the forested plot of land into no less than twenty-one sublots, each housing a spacious dwelling and a few square feet of transplanted grass, each selling for no less than $200,000. But although my own tastes might discriminate, the snow did not; it fell just as resolutely on that old, burning house as it did, and still does, on those tiny, irregularly rectangular lots.

In another year, some lucky developer may buy our neighbors' house and burn it to the ground, gluttonously eyeing their goodly tract of land, and any covert attempts we may make to salvage shards of the house's inner beauty will certainly fail. Nonetheless, that night, I came to a somewhat self-evident conclusion: the snow must always fall in the same way, no matter what it falls on. The Sun's light will always reflect off of the moon and onto the Earth, where that light will always reflect off the white snow and into my soul.

I looked up at the heavens and realized that, as I walked, I was really not moving at all. Instead, it seemed, all the earth moved by while I and the stars stood still in those silent winter moments. Whenever one stands so aligned with the stars, a line drawn from one's self to the nearest star forms an unbroken link to the cosmos, a radius of a perfect sphere whose celestial music drives the Earth forward, harmonizes with every thoughtful mind. Contemplating the implications of the dimensions of this sphere, the incomprehensible volume of such a construct implies to me that there is more to be learned from observing the eternal than can ever be gleaned from the transient of one's surroundings. Twenty-one more houses here or there will make no difference in the end, but maybe, just for myself, I can, I thought, as I hauled away the Christmas garbage.

Sometimes when it gets this quiet and dark and I am alone I like to shut my eyes and pretend that I matter to this world.

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