the old problem
I was left to tackle the old problem of getting through the afternoon, which, next to the problem of getting through the morning, is one of the hardest a lonely man can set himself.
- Evelyn Waugh Ninety-Two Days
Setzer was sure of it. He’d checked the instruments numerous times and taken thousands of readings. The signals were real. Something was out there and coming his way.
What to do? He thumbed the chipped edge of his mug and took a sip of coffee many hours cold. Get ready he supposed. For the first time in many weeks, he heated water and shaved. He tidied the cabin, even sweeping out the ashes from the cast iron wood stove. Then he carried his only chair onto the narrow porch and waited.
All his life, he’d been waiting. He’d known this day would come when the waiting would be over, and he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. Being alone had first been a habit, then a mindset, finally a lifestyle. Deciding in his early years that the universe existing between his ears was as wide as the star-filled one, he’d lived completely within himself.
Except for the lizard.
Setzer’s ever-insistent reptile brain poked at the great worry. The old problem. The inherent threat of immensity. A primal suspicion impossible to shake, and therefore he could not not chase it. The perverse comfort he took in relentlessly searching for the threat, staring it down, was what had sustained him all these years. And now it was here.
The certainty that he, we, would never be alone again made him feel as never before. Empty. The last drop drained. Lonely. He was suddenly a lonesome man looking from his porch to the horizon, unable to make a move, waiting for the others to make theirs. Time was no longer a tool, just torture.
Coolly (he could think no other way), he tried to understand the epoch unfolding, but had no frame of reference for himself as consequential, as the center of anything that mattered. Whether or not he detected the signals of their coming, they would still come. By now, maybe others knew as well and were reporting it. Maybe all humanity knew what he knew.
It was another way he was not alone, and he grew more anxious. His chair felt hard for the first time and he fidgeted, unable to keep focused on the horizon. Finally, he stood and began walking. It did not matter where. He was not alone. He would be found. They were coming and he would be found, like any other.
There it was. He’d lived a separate, completely individual, life, but he could not escape the whole. The immensity. Every morning, every afternoon, every night, he was part of it. No different than any other.
Setzer wandered a fair way from his cabin to the ridge overlooking a crosshatch of ravines draining to the river below. Like a mere raindrop, he could end up there too, without a choice, flowing to the sea.
Didn’t matter where you started, what you did, what signals from other worlds you discovered, you were headed where everyone else was.
Immensity meant none of us was alone. We ultimately fell and flowed to where the cosmos drained. The liberated, the leashed, the led, the lost, the lively, the lonely. Thrown together no matter which planet conquered which, we shared the same old problem.