I remember the moment I became conscious of myself in the cosmos. By cosmos, I mean “the whole cosmic system of matter and energy,” and that is what I mean rather than “the world.” I had learned in school that the Milky Way was the universe, and that's what I was gazing at in the early minutes of 1957on a bristling cold night, forty miles south of the British Columbia border in eastern Washington State. I was 10 years old. The Pepsi-Cola thermometer on the screened porch of my cousin Ray Johnson’s house read minus 18.
Ray and Edith and their son, Robert, who was four years older than I, lived on the Tiger road seven miles northeast of Colville. Mill Creek was a five-minute walk south of the house on a path through a meadow where the grass was up to my waist and full of garter snakes in summer. The place names are mythic to me still, decades after I understood that the people who homesteaded on Deadman Creek and Gold Creek lost their homesteads to Lake Roosevelt when Grand Coulee Dam was built and the Columbia River rose. They were Oakies, whether or not they made their way to the Columbia watershed from Appalachia through Oklahoma in a Diamond Reo or from Sweden on the cheapest boat they could find. Some of these people attended school, most never finished high school, and not one of them went to college. But a lot of them made more money than I ever will.
I was out on the packed snow in the freezing splendor of New Year’s Eve making a pop run. Ray was a Pepsi distributor, and his warehouse, with the white, blue and red Pepsi delivery truck and all the pop, was there on his acreage. I was alone because Robert was sick. He’d been sneaking whiskey since the poker game started and hadn’t even made it to nine o’clock. I would sneak plenty of whiskey on subsequent New Year’s Eves, but then I couldn’t even stand the smell. I’d stood in front of the big black-and-white Zenith and watched the ball drop and the New Yorkers celebrate in Times Square. Mom and Gram, great aunt Dorothy Dillman and Edie Johnson turned in their chairs at the table, but the men kept their eyes on their cards. Midnight came three hours later for us, and they’d stopped the game then, wished one another a Happy New Year and had s’ing t’ eat, as my Mom’s father, whom I called Pop, said; it meant something to eat. For us the only thing on TV at midnight was the test pattern.
This was fifty-six years ago, and I still hear the crackling silence; I turn a circle and see the deep dark of the hunkered mountains and the shallow dark of the snowy meadow. The creek was down there running too fast to freeze and too far away for me to hear. I see, too, the colored lights around the top of Ray’s and Edith’s porch; I turn full circle again, and I see the huge pole shed I thought of as a warehouse. And then I look up at the Milky Way, that beach of light, like someone threw a thick navy-blue wool blanket on the dining room table to play cards, then dumped a pickup load of diamonds on it and they tumbled out and filled forever. A monsoon of beauty rained down on me.
It was, indeed, a drenching beauty, as Louise Erdrich has written. No supernatural voice needed to tell me that I was less than a dust mote in the vastness I saw and felt. But I was something. I was a part of the cosmos, a system of matter and energy. The awareness in me of myself, which is consciousness, came alive in that moment of fulfillment. Something in me understood that mine was a tiny part and a brief residence in the grander system. This is not what I said to myself; I wasn’t capable of saying it; I can say now that this is what I felt.
Nobody had to tell me life was short. Ray and Edith’s older son, Art, had been electrocuted that fall in the little radio station where he worked in Oregon. Dad told me that Ray’s first words on the phone had been, “I lost my boy.” Why would I remember that little sentence for almost sixty years? Some of the reason lies in what happened to me that night under the stars.
I opened the door to the warehouse, switched on the lights and filled my doubled grocery bag with glass quart bottles of Pepsi and Canada Dry ginger ale. I returned to find my parents together with people they’d known most of their lives. At Ray’s and Edith’s every Near Year’s Eve, they were different than they were with me. My father was quick-witted and funny and laughed a lot playing poker. He hardly ever laughed at home.
I go outside on a freezing winter night, and I see that place and those people, all gone now, in my mind. I’m a good deal older now than my parents were then. But the same stars light up that cold, black, beautiful sky.
Terry Davis wrote three novels years ago. The first, Vision Quest, published by the Viking Press and Bantam Books, Warner Bros. made into the film of the same title with Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino in 1984; the second was Mysterious Ways, also published by Viking; the third was If Rock and Roll Were A Machine by Delacorte Press and Bantam Books. The books are still available in university press paperback editions. Davis taught in MFA writing programs for thirty years and was forced into retirement by a matter of health. He misses teaching.