The Challenge of the Sunrise

Jim Daniels

Watching the sunrise on the east coast is harder than watching the sunset on the west coast. Ask what’s her name.

My younger brother and I camped in New Hampshire or Massachusetts at a state park in our father’s old canvas house tent that smelled like musty childhood. We had escaped a Detroit summer of factory work and ran off with the tent, two sleeping bags, and a baggie full of hooch.

A young schoolteacher camping alone at the next site. We invited her to our campfire. Drinking and smoking. We sat on foldout campstools we’d lifted from the garage back home. Our father, pissed at us for leaving factory money on the table, but nostalgic for his own reckless pre-factory memories, gave us his retroactive blessing over a parking lot payphone.

Here, imagine small talk. Very small. Stoned small talk. My brother and I hardly talked to anyone all summer. Seven-day work weeks, racking up future tuition money. Our lips smacked softly off beer bottles, oiling what had rusted. No singing around our campfire. We listened to waves crash through trees.

The campfire started out as a perfect asterisk and then crumbled into disoriented ashes and from then on, we just tossed the logs on and hoped they’ll catch eventually. We squinted through the smoke at each other.

Using that theory, imagine me and her suddenly in her orange nylon tent. Imagine my brother’s head shaking warily through the flames as we wandered away into a movie he’d seen before. Was he content to tend the fire alone? You’d have to ask him.

Her tent was small. I keep typing “tent” as “tend.” I tend to do that—tired, stoned, crumbling into ash. But not too small. We had sex. Small sex that didn’t yank up stakes like a good storm. The tent hot with cool breezes through the trees. The campground fell into waves of silence. Night bugs played tiny acoustic guitars. The glow of light outside the wooden bathhouse, civilized in the distance. Now what? What.

Sleep was out of the question and so was my leaving. The answer was to watch the sunrise over the ocean. We’d both seen it on postcards and agreed it might be worth it, perhaps better without the gloss.

I was not a schoolteacher camping alone. I was studying drug dealing at a small state college up north. I had a brother. We were in a state. We imagined we were escaping our future, putting one over on the Big Foreman in the sky. Did you ever have a foreman?

I remember my brother’s name, and the stupid tattoo he got on that trip while I waited out on the street. I should remember her name. I took a photo of her from behind with my 110 camera. You can imagine how that came out. But I’ll tell you. Blocking the sun, her rumpled sleepless body in silhouette outlined by the Big Spotlight. I almost wrote beautiful body, but that would be cheating. Like saying the sex was good and that we would keep in touch. Send each other postcards of sunrises for the rest of our lives.

In the morning, I fell back into gritty sleep in the house tent. My brother had made cowboy coffee and was smoking a morning doobie. I waved to him as I zippered up the rest of my life.

She was gone when I arose from the dead, having beat me to that daily miracle. Headed down the coast on her long solo summer expedition. Would she ever stay up all night to see the sunrise again? Not if it meant spending the night with a stoned factory rat from Detroit who couldn’t even remember her name.

Not saying she could remember mine. Or wanted to. I think she might be happy with the way the photo came out. A dark, anonymous blur looking away from me and toward the sun.

In California, you can just say, Hey, let’s walk down to the beach to watch the sunset drop its ball into oblivion. Afterwards, you walk back to wherever and get on with the night, checking your watch, going to sleep whenever you damn well feel like it, satisfied that it’s over, with its delicious disappointment. I’ve seen more than a few sunsets. None has cost me more than a parking ticket.

I think disappearance is easier than arrival. Some think the opposite. What was the beach song that summer? Hum me a few bars and see if I can guess it. Not Barry Manilow!

You can spend your whole life searching for delicious disappointment. I can’t say how delicious or disappointing it might be, having given up on that. Having taken down the house tent with my brother after evacuating the ghosts of our parents and siblings. It’s a two-person job to remove the center pole without everything collapsing on you.

We split the driving on the way home, as we always did. In our familiar brotherly silence. Stuck with Barry Manilow on an AM radio. My brother knew better than to ask how it was. I knew better than to tell him.

Last week, he called from California to mention he had no pictures from that trip. I said I’d send a few. I paused, but I did not send him the sunrise. All these years later, it still felt like a violation of a silent pact I’d made with her. An unspoken agreement that we were human and both needed that human thing.

After the sun rose clear and unmistakably up, we walked back to the campground holding hands. Then we stopped to look at each other and held both hands as if in some ritual ceremony. Then we let go.

Worth it to have five seconds of holding two hands. But I’ve never been able to do it again.

Jim Daniels’ latest poetry collections include Gun/Shy, Wayne State University Press, and two chapbooks, The Human Engine at Dawn, Wolfson Press, and the forthcoming Comment Card, Carnegie Mellon University Press. His new fiction collection The Luck of the Fall, Michigan State University Press, will be published later this year. A native of Detroit, he lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program.