J. Chris Rock
The desert hummed and clicked and came alive as the day’s heat
simmered away. Sound expanded into the twilight like gas filling a room,
finding equilibrium. It was a backdrop of high even tones and papery chatter
Leo Neman had grown used to. The familiar embrace of the desert slipping
They could come back now, he thought. Or now. The arachnoid shadow of man and chair on the ground before him. Shadows of the yucca joined his, black crooked fingers reaching for the eastern horizon. Or now, he thought.
The sky was still too bright, but Leo imagined stars surfacing one by one from the fading glow. The first would tug at his peripheral vision only to vanish as he looked. Then another, in the corner of his eye. Then another and another in the hide and seek of dim light, until the tiny brilliant points stayed on when he looked and the sky hung heavy with stars.
Leo unscrewed the lid of his Thermos, poured coffee. He blew and sipped, sat and watched and waited. The telescope lay unassembled in the back of his truck, along with a small metal case filled with a dozen or so eyepieces nestled into hand-cut holes in protective foam. The sun sank into the horizon and color drained from the land, the browns and rusts and greens replaced by monochrome static. The shadows of Leo and the yucca stretched and lifted into the night, the sky faded to deep clear black, and there were no stars.
The chatter around Leo darkened too, the bright sunset sounds slowly
replaced by the drone and thrum of night. The cold soaked into him. Quicker
than it used to, he thought. After an hour or so he stood, folded his
chair and hefted it into the back of the pickup beside the unused telescope.
The truck jostled onto the dark two-lane highway and Leo headed home.
“Hello? Leo? I’m talking here?” Marcie’s voice hadn’t changed. In all those years it hadn’t lost its edge. She’d been thinner than he expected, among other things.
“It’s loud in here is all,” Leo said.
Marcie stared at him with the same mix of exasperation and fear she’d
adopted as her default expression when she turned sixteen. She was a good
twenty years older now, they both were. But with her hair pulled back
in a ponytail, Leo saw the daughter he remembered.
Blond hair and overalls, miniature tennis shoes, tiny backpack, some sort of food spread—cheese, peanut butter, something—in the corner of the mouth. Leo tried to pull it all together into a grandson. Like the thinness, the boy had been a surprise. His grandson.
“This might be a good time to say hello. To your grandson. Leo.”
A quick glance, a burst of the old Leo, the simmering father figure Leo, made Marcie’s sarcasm slip and she retreated into the act of looking in her purse. Leo took a breath, held it, let it out. He squatted down to his grandson, feeling the descent in his knees. Up close the boy looked younger than he had thought, maybe six or seven. Leo forced a smile.
“Well, Barry. I’m Grandpa, I guess.”
At his name, a flash of recognition passed across Barry’s eyes before they shifted and traced the passing rattle of a luggage cart. Leo’s smile hung there. He saw the tilt of Barry’s head, the slouch of his shoulders.
“I’m Grandpa,” Leo repeated. Barry twisted around, eyes following the cart.
“You only sent one plane ticket. Had to pay for his,” Marcie broke in, rummaging through her purse with the hollow sound of plastics colliding. “Which I’ll say was not damn cheap. Flight was almost sold out. Everybody’s nuts or something.”
Leo stood up, wiping his hands on his pants, staring at Barry.
“Well is there a bar or something? Because…” She finished the thought with a slap against her side. Barry didn’t flinch.
Stroke or seizure, he’d been sure of it. An old man crumpling and disappearing. No one would find him, no one would look. He remembered staggering forward as if he’d been pressing against something that suddenly wasn’t there. He was sure it was the end, his end.
The sound of rocks scraping under his feet, something other than silence and his own heavy breaths, snapped him out of it. He heard the familiar drone of insects creep back in. It’s not me, he thought. I’m ok, I’m ok, he said, over and over until he believed.
When he looked up, the sky was still empty. He shuffled in a circle, every direction was a hazy void. Nothing like the close blankness of cloudy nights. He could sense the dome overhead, the pure and horrific space up there. It felt like standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down and feeling the pull of all that empty air. Dizzy, exposed, he fell against the solid metal bulk of his truck.
Coyotes howled across the open desert. They’d seen it too, he thought. It’s not me. It’s the sky.
Terrified, Leo had driven entirely too fast back down the dry wash road, the truck angling dangerously more than once. In the stuttering headlights he saw rabbits and other small dark shapes blurring off into the brush, running from him, running from the sky. The battered pickup had strained to hold together as he skidded onto the highway back to town.
At home he stood in front of the TV, watched the scattered panic of the news channels. It had all happened at the same time, they said. Visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, radio, electromagnetic—it was all gone. Simultaneous, they said. Bullshit, Leo argued with the screen. Space is time, farther is older. It can’t all go at once. But the news stumbled on. Fires in a city somewhere. Traffic jams and midnight services. The newscasters’ voices reminded Leo of the coyotes. Graphics were misspelled and the sound didn’t work on more than one live remote. It was all wrong and not ready, not at all ready.
Almost two weeks had passed since the event. The world hadn’t ended, not yet, and it seemed like everyone was trying to figure out what to do next. The global near-death experience ignited a billion or so reunions, job resignations and maniacal renewals of faith in lives never lived—innumerable loose ends being picked up, fiddled with.
Smoke rolled in, burning Leo’s eyes. He looked up to see Marcie slumped on her elbows across the table, staring at him, confidence blooming in the low light of the bar.
“Fascinating, ain’t he?” she asked, flicking her eyes
“It’s called slow.” She snapped ash into the rotating ashtray. Barry didn’t blink.
“I swear. Ask a doctor and that’s what he’ll say. Slow. Whole freaking HMO told me that. I’m schlepping drinks and life ain’t always what it’s supposed to be and Barry is slow.”
“Still waitressing then?”
“Makes you proud, don’t it?”
Leo watched people hurry by in the crisp light of the airport. On their way to homes, families, comfort, he thought. A dull tone chimed, boarding call for Phoenix.
“Bear, Bear.” Leo heard the edge come off Marcie’s voice. “Drink some water. You’ll get dehydrated.” Out of the corner of his eye, Leo saw her aim the straw at Barry. He saw Barry take an unhurried sip, eyes never leaving the ashtray. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Marcie’s voice sound like that. Kind, like it cared.
Leo knew what she thought. He had decades of experience with Marcie’s worldview. Life was unfair. Not just that, but unfair in a precise way, unfair to her specifically. As her father, Leo knew he was just one more embodiment of Marcie’s tilted scales of justice. He had fulfilled the archetype by instinct.
Marcie wasn’t their first child. Before her, Leo and Janine had a boy. A miscarriage, but far enough along to be a boy. Two years later, Marcie. At the age of six they told her, and that unfortunate fact had colored her universe ever since. She stopped calling him Dad, started calling him Leo. Leo didn’t want her, she thought. Leo wanted a boy. Marcie was a runner-up, consolation prize. All her anger was aimed at him, not Janine, for reasons Leo still didn’t understand. All that anger, and at some point Leo began to give it back. He became what she thought he was.
And then the whole ordeal with Janine. That had sealed things for good.
“The Purgatory Event. That’s what the news calls it.”
“That.” She pointed with her cigarette. “We can’t really see shit from the city anyway, so big whoop.”
Leo tried to think of a kind thing to say. Nothing came. Marcie continued.
“But so the moon’s still there? You’re still into all that, right?”
“Since your mother passed.” Leo knew it was the wrong thing. He always knew, just a little late. Marcie’s hands started to flutter. She took a nervous drag and shot her head to the side, pushing out the smoke. “They know it’s extrasolar,” he continued. “The moon’s still there, the planets. They’re looking for Kuiper Belt objects now.”
“Wait the what belt? Extrawhat?” Instantly, she was back to being the petulant teenager.
“Planetoids. Out past Pluto, honey.”
Barry was still fascinated by the ashtray. Leo took a breath. He kept Janine’s smiling face in his mind. Marcie looked like her mother when she smiled. It was something he could only remember seeing in pictures, Marcie smiling.
“Whatever happened, happened way out there,” he said.
Marcie held her empty glass up with a rattle of ice and shouted toward the bar. “Do I have to get this myself?”
The waitress behind him punched in the order, and Leo thought about how the word hate had come out as easily as any other. Marcie would say it when she was in high school, just as readily. She’d say I hate you. And she’d string it together in a rant blown out from her bedroom door. I hate you I hate you I hate you. For grounding her or scolding her or scaring away one of her so-called boyfriends. It didn’t take much. She’d said it again at the funeral, only just once that time, heavy with all the other times she wanted to say it.
The waitress set another vodka tonic in front of Marcie. “Nice
hustle,” Marcie snapped, but the waitress was gone.
Marcie and Barry were at the Motel 6 just outside of town. It was 2 a.m., the sky was clear and empty. Leo was up, like he was every night since Purgatory had happened, head buzzing with insomnia, working in a soft bubble of light at the back of the garage.
The smell of oil and old wood balanced in the air. Outside the lamp’s halo, finished telescopes sat pointing to random spots in the garage. The big one, the light bucket with the ten-inch mirror, stood eight feet tall, pointing at the ceiling. He’d made it earlier that year, a challenge to see if he could grind a mirror that big. The parabola wasn’t perfect, but the sheer size of it dragged in enough light to coax out detail in nebulae and galaxies. He’d lettered Ex Nihilo on its side, which now seemed like a presciently bad joke. Out of nothing, back to nothing.
Next to it, aimed at the wall, was the five-inch scope he’d made two years ago. Good mix of fast f/ratio and mid-sized mirror. Not great for any one thing, but good at most. Like 200-speed film, he’d tell people at the public star parties. All-purpose, he’d say, as kids would scrunch up one eye and press the other to the eyepiece, not listening.
The shorter tube with the two-inch mirror pointed at the floor was the first scope he’d built, years ago, the one he made after Janine had died. It was crude, the mirror so uneven and f/ratio so off that finding focus on anything but the brightest objects was nearly impossible. Aberrations warped everything that wasn’t perfectly centered and even Jupiter fought resolution in it. For astronomy, it was useless.
Janine had wanted to go. Leo knew. The living will was for everyone else, maybe even for Marcie, who didn’t want to let her mother go no matter what. The cancer had worn Janine down to a withered line between here and somewhere else. She wanted to go and Leo let her. With that, he lost Marcie too. Not that he’d ever had her, not since she was six, but he lost the promise of ever getting her back.
In the years that followed, Leo turned to the sky. He moved to the clear dark nights of New Mexico. He ground mirrors and built scopes and found himself not so alone when he stood under the stars. Then they followed Janine and Marcie. They went somewhere he couldn’t go.
Two hundred eighteen, two hundred nineteen. He imagined showing a nine-year-old
Marcie how to grind a mirror. “You see honey,” he’d
say as she would stare wide-eyed at the watery light bouncing off the
glass in his lap, “you have to find just the right rhythm, slow
and easy. The sandpaper knows where to go. It’ll tell you.”
He was still sixty-four, but Marcie was a little girl, all pigtails and
bright eyes. He was the kindest father, the father as grandfather, never
a sharp word. He gave and gave. He’d never yelled in his life.
The thin crescent moon looked both bigger and smaller in the empty sky. It grew and shrank according to how the mind chose to see it—immense in its solitude, or tiny under all that vacant weight. Leo turned and saw the dark form of Marcie standing in the gloom, arms crossed. The smaller outline of Barry wandered slowly through the yucca and clumps of brittle grass, his face hidden under a jacket hood. The drone of insects and night surrounded them.
“Bear, don’t wander, honey. Dangerous,” Marcie said.
Then harsher, “Barry, I said here. Now.” He stopped and stood
frozen, head in his hood. Marcie gave an annoyed grunt and dug in her
Leo walked over to his truck and pulled out a thermos.
Barry didn’t say anything, but started to wander vaguely toward the truck. Barry responded sometimes, Leo thought. In his own way he responded. As if he understood what was going on but didn’t see what it all had to do with him. After a minute or so, Barry ended up at the truck. He held the cup in both hands as Leo poured. Steam and the warm smell of chocolate drifted into the crisp night air. Barry wandered away, white cup tipping into the hood.
Leo held up the thermos to Marcie. In the darkness he couldn’t see her face. Her arm came up and there was an angry smolder of cigarette, then she turned away with a scrape. The day had been a succession of bitter tries with her. His tiny success with Barry just now was unconscionable defeat for her. He dropped the thermos back into the truck and walked over.
“This parent stuff is a hoot, you think?” he said.
“You wouldn’t know.”
They stood and faced the same sky. The moon sank to the west, following the cool dying glow of the sun. Barry made exploratory circles.
“I remember that time,” Leo said. “We chased you in the car. You and…what’s his name.” He waited, looking at Marcie. She took another drag and pushed out the smoke. She never just exhaled, he noticed. It was always like a release valve, smoke and pressure shooting into the air.
“Tommy,” she said.
“Tommy, Tommy. Supposed to be with your girlfriends, and here we see you driving around with this Tommy. Chased you all over town before that boy pulled over. He was scared as hell.” Leo gave a little laugh. “Lost your car keys for that one.”
“Took them back too.”
“You did at that. Tore the hell out of the driveway.” Leo trailed the sentence off with a refrain as he smiled and remembered. “You sure did.”
Marcie took another drag and shot out a line of smoke.
“You always yelled,” she said.
“You usually needed yelling.”
“Mom never yelled.”
“Goddamnit.” It was involuntary, a reflex still unintentionally sharp. Marcie needled and jabbed until she created a father she could hate, someone she could blame for every inequality heaped on her. Leo snapped at the incessant bait and the word cracked out of him like a gunshot. He bit back the rest of it, fought the urge to revert.
The moon fell into the horizon as they stood together and didn’t talk. Through the rhythm and whine of the insects, Leo heard her sniff, then turn and head back to the truck.
Leo stood in the open sun, a few feet behind Barry. Around them, habitually kicking up dust, hands on hips and squinting, stood a few other stragglers from the tour. The rest of the group was taking refuge in the eighty-foot shadow of a nearby radio telescope. Barry shifted from foot to foot nearby and watched the forty or so tourists huddled under the dish.
Around them, the twenty-seven radio dishes of the Very Large Array spread out across the high open plains west of Socorro. Each one pointed to the same spot somewhere behind the blue sky. Today they were configured in maximum spread, each rolled along its track until the diameter of the group was eighteen miles. Combined, their signals created a single enormous scope looking as far as possible into the sky, searching for vanished sources.
Marcie had backed out of the VLA trip at breakfast. She blamed her stomach, the spicy southwestern food, but Leo knew. She spent the ride back from the desert last night crying into the window. Barry sat between them and stared at the highway or the headlights or the darkness.
Leo had been on the VLA tour plenty of times. He’d taken it when he first moved down to Socorro, before he’d unpacked the boxes stacked in neat columns in his garage. The VLA was a shrine for all amateur astronomers. They came to stand in the midst of this quietly immense endeavor, surrounded by a raw human ambition that was simultaneously noble and pathetic. Like Leo, they came to worship the secular god of understanding.
Barry had sat quietly, almost attentively, as the tour guide gave a brief history of radio astronomy. The guide, an engineer in a crewcut and workboots from Leo’s generation who had helped build the VLA back in the late 70s, explained just how little energy radio waves contain, how sensitive the dishes were.
“Take all the detected radio signals,” he said, “from every radio telescope back to Jansky’s first in 1931. Add up all the combined energy from all those radio waves and you have the same amount of energy it takes a mosquito to flap its wings and take off. Once.”
The rest of the crowd hmmed and ahhed. It was a full house today. Curiosity and fear had boosted attendance at observatories. Today’s tour had been sold out, but Winona at the ticket office had managed to sneak in Leo, plus one.
Barry didn’t respond with the rest of the crowd. He stared blankly at the overhead projection of janskies and relative distances. The light, Leo thought. Maybe Barry had a light fetish, like a moth.
The tour had then gone through the VLA photo gallery, a mixture of planetarium and art gallery with darkened hallways and glossy back-lit photographs of distant, unimaginably massive blobs. Barry had been holding on to the corner of Leo’s jacket, vacantly leashed along. In front of the biggest display, photos of the galaxy’s nucleus, Leo felt a tug. He looked back to see Barry, still holding his jacket, staring at the main photograph. It was a five-foot rectangle of black slashed by a red swarm of pixelized light. In its center, a tiny white dot.
Leo knew the photo. Sagittarius A, the exact center of the galaxy. Astronomers believed Sagittarius A, the tiny white dot, was a supermassive black hole roughly the size of the earth’s entire orbit around the sun. Everything in the galaxy was swirling around it, into it. Other galaxies most likely had the same thing, a central all-devouring monster. These were the engines of the universe. They obliterated matter but, at the same time, generated the energy that compacted interstellar gases into spiral arms, suns, planets, life.
There were still doubts about Sagittarius A being a black hole, still
gaps in the data. Leo hoped the theory would fall one day. It was too
fatalistic, water circling the drain. It was the world Marcie saw.
Now, there was no Sagittarius A. No center, no drain, no proof one way or the other. Hypothesis solved by sudden and total irrelevance.
In the gallery, Barry’s eyes had seemed to read across the photo, left to right, sweeping back and again. It was the most present Leo had ever seen him. Barry’s small round lips moved a bit, as if he were mumbling. Leo leaned in closer but there was no sound.
When the tour moved upstairs to the control room, 60s-era wood paneling and computers the size of cars, Barry had a few more random stops and stares. Monitors, banks of lit buttons, sets of blinking lights on something that looked like a filing cabinet outfitted with a reel-to-reel.
Outside in the sun, Leo stood behind Barry and watched the wind blow
his hair, thin blond strands lifting and settling in the heat. Barry’s
round head swayed back and forth, pointed at the tourists. One of them
ran out from the shade of the dish, snapped a photo, and ran back. Colors,
it came to Leo. Maybe Barry was attracted by colors. The machines, the
projections, the giant dish shimmering in the heat. Light and colors.
“These scientist types won’t say it, but I read online. Existential negation. That’s what happened, the Purgatory Event.”
Everyone had a theory. Leo heard them in line at the grocery, pumping gas. Multiple dimensions, black holes, always some kind of ripple or flux. Or tear in space-time, people liked to say that one. The few times he’d eaten out, bits of mutilated science invariably came sluicing over from the next table, ruining his appetite. Everyone was a cosmologist now.
“Okay,” Leo said.
“See, stars can’t all go out at the same time because of the speed of light.”
The retiree scanned Leo’s face.
“You know about the speed of light?” he asked.
“I know about it, yes,” Leo said.
Leo wasn’t immune to the temptation of a pet theory. His was gravitational waves. A team of Dutch physicists believed Purgatory could be explained by what would be considered a tsunami of a gravitational wave set off by a distant supernova, washing undetected over the relatively tiny expanse of the solar system. The theory contended that the stars were still out there, but all the light was being gravitationally lensed away from earth. Leo foisted this theory onto no one.
“So, ok. That’s the thing. Speed of light. The stars can’t go out simultaneously. And the only way around it is, not only did all the stars cease to exist, they ceased to have ever existed in the first place. They all go out at the same time because they were never on. Existential negation. Get it?”
He said it like a punchline. Leo smiled tightly and nodded. He turned back to Barry, who had taken a few steps toward the tourists and angled around, like he was looking for a better view. Leo could see his face, his lips were moving in a mumble again.
“Your boy’s really into astronomy, huh?” the retiree asked.
“Grandson,” Leo replied. “And no, not really.”
“Huh,” the man said. “Could’ve fooled me. I mean, about astronomy and all. Kid’s got some focus there.” He gestured at Barry with his can of Diet Coke.
Leo considered telling him. Thanks, but my grandson’s retarded. Have a nice day.
How would that come off? Would it be cruel? Would it stop the man from talking? Before he could decide, a metallic boom shot across the valley. The radio dishes began to rotate together. The tour guide led his group out from underneath the dish.
“Let’s move away for re-alignment. Over here.” The small group groaned as it was forced out into the sun.
“Well then, see you,” the retiree said to Leo, tipping his tam. He walked off toward the group.
Leo turned and called, “Barry. Come on.”
Barry didn’t move.
Leo fought the urge to clap or snap his fingers.
“Barry, come…” Leo stopped when he realized. Barry’s blond circle of a head was tilting, turning. Slowly, like he was watching a cloud grow in the sky. It took patience to see it. Leo squinted. He caught another motion in his peripheral vision, another fluid turning. The dishes.
Barry hadn’t been staring at the tourists at all.
Twenty-seven white parabolas turned together to some new point deep in the sky as Leo walked up to Barry. He seemed oblivious to Leo, or indifferent. His eyes were locked on the giant dish in front of them, turning with it. There was a sharpness in those eyes, Leo thought, and he felt a trembling light come into him.
“That one there,” Leo explained to Barry, “that’s the focuser. That’s how you make things look sharp. When you’re looking at something, you twiddle that knob back and forth, back and forth. Got to always adjust, always refocus.”
Barry gave a small nod and kept turning the knob back and forth. He nodded, Leo thought. Responded. And when his eyes were focused on something, it made his face look older, present.
Marcie had insisted on going with them out to the desert.
“Marcie honey, you hate it,” Leo had said.
“If you think I’m going to spend every minute in this goddamn motel room.”
“We’ll be out there for hours.”
She stood with her arms crossed and stared at low scuffs on the cheap drywall. Leo had seen her face when he and Barry returned from the VLA. He’d seen through her eyes. He and Barry, standing in the brightness outside the room. Barry’s tiny hand wrapped in Leo’s rough fingers. Marcie had been destroyed.
“My son goes, I go,” she’d said.
In the desert, in the deep orange glow of the setting sun, Barry continued to turn the focuser.
“You can see the most beautiful things through a scope. Through that eyepiece right there,” Leo said. “Every dream you’ll ever have.”
Barry leaned his blond head over the scope and looked in. Leo knew the boy was seeing empty haze, the same dead sky only closer, but his little face stayed there, hovering an inch or so from the eyepiece, watching, waiting. Behind Barry, Marcie and the desert hills blurred to shadows.
“That’s right,” Leo said. “Like a nebula. You know what a nebula is?”
Barry’s head moved slightly—left, then right, then left. It moved, answered. Leo shifted in his chair, brought his hands up from his knees.
“It’s a big cloud of gas,” he said, molding it with his hands though Barry’s eyes stayed at the scope. “Just like the clouds you see in the sky. But big as the solar system, bigger. Millions and millions of miles.”
Leo began to fill the sky in Barry’s mind. Out of the thin air of the desert, he created vast ghost arms blown by the winds of a stellar nursery. Galaxies colliding in catastrophic silence as shockwaves spread an arc of blue newborn light. A perfect billion-mile-wide smoke ring exhaled by a star in Lyra. Misty banks of cotton light stretching across the dome of the sky. Even Sagittarius A, voracious Shiva at the center of the galaxy, black but rimmed in the brilliance of obliterating matter, creation through destruction.
Every bit of immaculate wonder Leo had seen in the depths overhead, he lit anew. Spreading his arms wide, waving, Leo leaned in and opened the night. Barry hovered over the empty eyepiece, seeing it all. Around them, to the enduring hum of the desert, the day’s light faded from the sky.
J. Chris Rock