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Jack's grandmother was terrified of lightning. Maybe it was the forked shape of it, the way it flicked around heaven as if a bright snake lurked among the angels there. Or maybe it was simply ionic, the stray particles of Biblical fear charged and set abuzz inside her like the letters of a movie marquee. In fact, Ruby couldn't bring herself to pronounce the word. "When it . . . storms," she would say to her Baptist friends, "when it comes up a storm, I just go to bed." Sure enough when the spring thunderstorms descended upon Irene County, Kentucky, Ruby Taylor could be found in the oak four-poster, her mother's wedding-ring quilt tucked to her chin, a white candle glowing in a butter dish at the bedside. Jack's grandfather, Emmett, who had minor premonitions, said she was practicing for her own funeral.
Emmett Taylor sat on the screened-in back porch chewing a broomstraw and swatting the houseflies the storm had galvanized to the screens. He wore coveralls bleached out at the knees and a buttoned gray-brown cardigan, like something a wise old mouse might wear. His hair was swept back from his forehead in sparse metallic strands. Whereas Ruby's face was quick and malleable-- brightening, clouding over, clearing up again--Emmett's face was fixed, and resembled something chiseled in stone, or at least stamped onto a small coin. Like most country men, he always looked as if he were about to say something he had been considering a long time, his features wound into a perpetual squint of rumination, like some deep gray flower frozen at the point of blooming.
Jack sat at the edge of a ladder-backed chair and sailed a wobbly three of diamonds toward the upturned fedora on the porch window still. He had seen television cowboys kill time this way while they waited to be wounded in the shoulder. There was nothing to do but sit out the storm. The television, radio, even the refrigerator was unplugged, since lightening could travel a cord to get to you. Jack flipped another card toward the mouth of Emmett's fedora, the card fluttering downward and astray into one of his grandfather's work boots.
Jack's father had sent the deck of playing cards from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 300 miles away, where in Jack's opinion, he was working on the Bomb. The backs of the playing cards were decorated with cartoonish diagrams of atoms-- a bright red nucleus, plump as an apple around which blue electrons sped in elliptical orbits.
"It's not atomic bombs, Jack," his father had insisted during his last trip home. "I've explained all this before. It's a uranium plant, like when I worked here in Irene," his father had said. "It's energy."
The temporary transfer from the atomic plant in Irene to the main plant in Oak Ridge had come last fall, shortly after Jack's mother's death, and had stretched out now to almost six months, during which jack had lived with his grandparents in the house where his mother was born.
"Don't worry so much," his father had told him, a tap on the forehead for each word. "Remember, I'm just a welder anyhow. I wouldn't know the bomb of it fell on me."
But Jack wasn't nine years old for nothing. If there were already secrets a boy couldn't tell, how many more might a grown man have collected? "It's not the place for a family down there, that's for sure," his father had said of the rooming house where he lived with two other welders. There was that. There was also the grade school rumor about how Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was near the top of the Russians' target list. Seventh, is what Jimmy Farr had claimed at school. Jimmy's mother did weddings for the newspaper. No, third, Hazel Dyer, whose father had sunk $6000 into a fallout shelter, had insisted, and the dispute quickly escalated into a flurry of tiny fists.
There was even some boasting that western Kentucky would be targeted
by Khruschev's missiles. A strange doom-laden pride swept through Morgan
Elementary School as the children practiced their duck-and-cover during
the monthly bomb drills. What started as a bolt of urinary excitement in
the first grade as the sirens wailed, blossomed into a giggling communal
terror by the second and third grades, then flattened into a jaded obedience
by the fourth. By the upper elementary grades, a workable fatalism had
set in, barely distinguishable from the early symptoms of puberty.
FROM THE HEART of the storm came a prolonged uneven thunder, like a bottle rolling over a warped table top. Jack flipped another card that veered and snagged in a small anthurium Ruby was rooting on the window sill. Jack's aim was off, but that was understandable. One card lay wrecked on the slope of unwashed hen eggs rising from an aluminum bucket. Another was plastered against the damp porch screen, atoms facing inward, the card suspended there like some diabolical moth. Where your heart lies, there will your treasure lie also. Jack thought of the quotation from the Sermon on the Mount. Or did he have it backwards, was it treasure first, then the heart? Either way, the important thing seemed to be the heart, where it was situated, and since Jack's heart was turning in space, how could his aim be true?
In fact, Jack imagined himself blazing along in the capsule, Friendship 7, the one John Glenn had piloted around the earth two months before. The astronaut John Glenn had soared into the upper reaches of gravity, higher than the workings of thunder and lightning, higher than even the top of the rain. But not as high as heaven, Ruby had reminded Jack.
Over the months since his mother's car had skidded and crashed, Jack's grandmother had spoken often of heaven. Sometimes Ruby's heaven was an enormous meadow, a broad sun-drenched field where Jack imagined chicory and iron weed, a polleny mist of goldenrod on the horizon. At other times, heaven was a high glittering city like in the Baptist hymnals, or like the picture postcards of Knoxville, Tennessee, his father sometimes sent. There were mansions up there, all furnished and prepared.
Occasionally, Ruby grew silent in the middle of her descriptions of
heaven, seemed for an instant almost to drift into the missing details.
The most Jack could gather then was an idea of stillness and order, which
made him think of the section of Mount Moriah Cemetery where his mother
lay. The graves were newer there, the stones as straight as headboards.
There were bolts of plastic flowers. Stiff, soldierly cedars and arborvitae.
A BURST OF rain reached under the porch eaves, sending a brief spray through the screen and scattering the houseflies. There was a faint metallic odor as if the middle of the air someone were sifting gunpowder. Emmett snapped the swatter against the cuff of his pants and Jack watched the housefly zag upward, tick several times against the screen, then resettle. In space, Jack would be above all this, his arms afloat, his mind sharp as a bee's.
At school they had watched the jerky footage of John Glenn's blast-off and rescue back in February. The Atlas rocket had trembled, inched upward, almost levitating for a moment alongside the scaffolded gantry. Then, it had truly risen, sluggish at first, then faster, like a white arrow with its feathers on fire. Finally, the rocket had pitched a little, tilted in the air, or maybe it was the earth that had spun away beneath it.
"They don't have a ounce of business up there," had been Emmett's comment that night when the launch was repeated on the news. Jack had swung through all three channels. Each time the rocket rose, tilted, then trailed away. Emmett had grumbled, snapped his newspaper like sticks breaking. "You watch what happens once they get done tinkering," he had warned. Emmett had a grudge against space, against Sputniks and capsules and all heavenly gadgets higher than the galloping horse on the barn's weather vane. He was sure that somehow the weather would be damaged, the rains clogged up like a gutter, or, as now, ripped loose in a vengeful torrent.
Jack did watch what happened. And as he watched, he saw himself lifted above oceans and cities. John Glenn had seen four sunsets in a single day. If he had flown in the other direction, could he have watched the sun unset? Jack thought of a white spool, a ball of burning twine--unraveled, rewound. Could John Glenn have flown all the way out of 1962 and wound up younger than he started and everything that happened, unhappen? And would events unhappen only for John Glenn, the one actually rewinding the sunsets, or would it count for everyone below him as well?
Back on earth now, through the blurred screen, Jack could see the mimosas
tossing like manes, and even the sturdy catalpas listing in the storm.
From the capsule, Friendship 7, they would be as tiny and pitiful
as toys. Strapped, suited, helmeted, Jack would have a hundred knobs and
switches to manage, countless glowing dials and tiny, crucial levers. Maybe
there would be a hollow, hurrying sound like the inside of a seashell.
Or more likely, only the faintest crackle of earthly voices in his ear
as he plunged through space like a new boy planet.
THERE WAS A quick rush of wind, a kind of moan in the air, then a splitting
sound as a riddled branch was torn from the catalpa tree nearest the house.
Jack glanced down from space to see the broomstraw in his grandfahter's
mouth twitch with a kind of happy justice. Jack knew his grandfather hated
the catalpas. It had something to do with laziness, the conviction that
a tree ought to work for a living like anybody else. And even Jack could
see the catalpas were blatant shirkers. Not an apple to their names. Not
even so much as a hickory nut. Even the shade of the larger trees was something
Jack had seen his grandfather avoid, as if it were the shadow of temptation
itself, dark and shifting along the ground. For while Emmett could sleep
like a stump through even the most soul jarring of Brother Arnold Dannon's
Baptist sermons--pulpit poundings, organ bleats, the tearful clamor of
the newly saved--and though he seemed to consider religion a somewhat womanly
institution, a rigmarole that came, like table manners and matching curtains,
with the territory of marriage, he did have a healthy respect for the principle
of doom. Emmett seemed, in Jack's opinion, constantly on the lookout for
the avenues--laziness, curiosity, the meddlings of science--by which ruin
might arrive. Since Ruby believed so firmly in heaven, seemed almost to
be there when she prayed, the beads of her necklace visibly trembling from
a journey, and since Emmett put his stock in the downfall, the yawn of
the pit, between the two of them they more or less had the afterlife covered.
BUT THROUGH THE cracks of more or less a soul could fall, couldn't it? Jack often worried about this form of his perch in the largest catalpa tree. There were three enormous catalpas in the yard, several more loafing near the chicken house and barn, and scores of scraggly volunteers that shot up along the fence rows of the 12-acre farm. The trees were adorned with huge velvety, tear-shaped leaves and brief summer blossoms that opened like the mouths of tropical fish, except the flowers were deeper, softer, and if you wiggled a finger inside, it came out dusted with pollen, and felt like something you no longer owned.
Jack's catalpa stood at the edge of the yard. Shortly after the flight of Friendship 7, just as the first buds had appeared on the tree, Jack had nailed a half-dozen two-by-four scraps to the trunk for a ladder, and hammered a few weathered boards across the gap between the two large branches. It was as high as Ruby would allow, and although it wasn't exactly a capsule, or even a proper treehouse, it was a kind of rough platform where he could be John Glenn, slowly orbiting the farm and countryside. Where he could sit in outer space and listen to the watery sounds of tires on the highway, the ghost hoots of doves, the distant horns of coal barges on the Ohio river--sounds that got washed together in the breeze and mingled with the imaginary static and whine of space to become something like a voice, almost recognizable.
Or Jack could sit in his tree and worry about the stubbornness of his soul. How he could easily imagine braving the rigors of earthly orbit, the poisonous ethers, the sizzle of reentry, and yet still not have nerve enough to do a simple Christian thing back down on earth (the thing that Ruby had urged): namely, to pry himself from his Sunday church pew and walk down a measly aisle and be saved. How he could believe in God and Jesus his only son, could picture them and pray to them, but still not let himself be plucked up and officially reborn. Surely his soul was already falling then. Sometimes he broke off bits of catalpa bark and dropped them one by one through the gaps between branches. Like that, he thought. Except for the burning, it's like that.
"A monkey," Emmett had said to Ruby three nights ago after Jack was put to bed. Through his bedroom door Jack could hear the muffled splash of television horses fording a river. There had been a spatter of gunfire, then a lull in which he heard Emmett's voice again. "Nine-years-old, and sits up in that dadblasted tree like a monkey."
"Hush, Emmett," Ruby had said. "Don't talk that way, what with . . . " Jack lay very still, but whatever else Ruby said was drowned in hoof beats and the brassy music of pursuit.
"Dadblasted," Jack had practiced the next afternoon in the henhouse,
trying for a grittier voice than his own. He thought he might resemble
a movie gunfighter, someone harboring a bitter secret, Glenn Ford or Richard
Widmark maybe, flinty and small-eyed among the dust and feathers of the
chickenhouse. A nesting Leghorn squawked and flapped as Jack reached under
her into the strange warm down, feeling for the clutch of eggs. "Goddamn
shitheel chickens," he had tried then, startling himself with the invention,
immediately realizing he had gone too far. The bad words on his tongue,
his hand in the warm feathers, he felt suddenly too thin. He felt dull
and papery, like something a wasp had made, as the insulted hen hopped
through the door and into the sunlight.
THE THUNDERSTORM SEEMED to be moving in several directions at once. A gust of wind throttled the crepe myrtle near the porch, lashed and wrestled a pair of dogwoods. The rain continued in spasms and bursts, beat against the porch screen like a bad pulse. A separate wind whirled into the nearest catalpa and shook the dwarf peach tree near the hen yard, tossing blossoms to the ground like decorations blown from cake. Lightning appeared then, a quivering blue-white antler across what Jack could see of the sky. As the lightning vanished, it left a kind of shadow, a small reddish copy of itself stamped beneath the Jack's eyelids, and he braced himself for the sheet metal crack that would follow. Nevertheless, when it came there was a deep inward jolt, and Jack felt something, possibly his own heart, jerk like bait on a string.
He lost track of the astronaut version of himself then, the space capsule
with its brilliant dashboard and scorched windows flung from his attention.
There was an aftershock of thunder that seemed to momentarily inhabit the
house, moving between the wall studs, bucking the picture frames, rattling
hinges, animating the contents of faraway drawers. The atomic moth card
had slipped from the screen to the windowsill, and the metallic odor was
back--steely, implemental, like something struck on a forge. Jack looked
to his grandfather, the broomstraw traveling calmly from tooth to tooth.
He thought of his grandmother deep in the house, with her quilt and her
candle, the light jumping along the walls like kerosene.
STRANGE, THAT IT had been Ruby who broke the news to him. Tear-prone, storm-fearing, Bible-lapped and ever prayerful, and yet it was Ruby who had managed to raise herself up on the day of his mother's death, had dressed in a stiff gray wool suit smelling devoutly of the closet. She had driven the rambler straight to Morgan Elementary School and parked right in front, where only buses were allowed, while as far as anyone knew, Emmett had remained slumped in his chair on the back porch where they later found him, staring at a place on the screen, small and crumpled as a noon shadow.
Mrs. Sayers, Jack's third grade teacher, had been winding up a lesson
on cooperation among bees, when the school principal, Mr. Carlisle, opened
the door and asked her to step into the hallway. Mrs. Sayers had smacked
the chalk dust from her hands, made the buttoning motion across her lips
that meant quiet, then left the room. When she returned a few minutes
later, she was silent, though her lips seemed to be straining a little
at their buttons as she headed straight for the back wall where the children's
jackets hung in a bright row. Mr. Carlisle, who cultivated a faint resemblance
to Harry Truman, edged back into the room and asked for Jack. "You might
want to bring your lessons, Son," the principal said. When Jack entered
the hallway, there was Ruby in her wool suit and matching hat. Her face
was composed, roughed and lipsticked; her eyes, clearly bearing the brunt
of it, were a shattered pink. Yet Ruby's chin was up, her back as stiff
and straight as a courthouse column. At her side was Miss Abigail, the
school secretary, who had served in Korea, and was supposed to be valuable
in heartbreaking situations.
JACK TRIED TO think himself back above the storm now, back in the high saddle, riding Friendship 7, a comet tail of bright sparks trailing behind him in the emptiness and calm. He tossed another playing card, watched it skitter across the floor. The card came to rest near several others--a queen and two of clubs, a high spade, a couple of atoms. The storm seemed to be weakening a little, although heavy veils of rainwater still poured from the overflowed gutters. As the lightning flashed again, Jack saw the trees--mimosas, catalpas, the dogwoods in a row--frighteningly illuminated, tinged the yellowish green of creatures on the ocean floor.
It was only then, as the lightening disappeared back into the general rain, that Jack thought of the obvious thing, what Mrs. Sayers had said about lightning. Just two weeks before, Mrs. Sayers had told his class there were scientists who believe it might have been lightning, uncountable ages of lightning striking the earthly seas, that jostled the first common elements into life.
Mrs. Sayers, an Episcopalian, didn't exactly say this was so. Irene was, by and large, a Baptist county. Most of the third graders had been born twice already. And while Mrs. Sayers was educated, she was no fool. She had said it was merely a theory. "What are the basic ingredients of science?" she asked the class. "A question and a maybe," the third graders sang back. All Mrs. Sayers had said was that scientists thought just maybe the power of all that lightning had done the trick, had sparked the waters into life.
Jack had waited until after supper that night, when Emmett migrated
out to the porch with his almanac, to deliver this piece of science to
his grandmother. Ruby was already washing dishes and humming the alto part
to a church piece when Jack told her about the lightning, how it had created
life all by itself. Ruby had actually rinsed a fistful of silverware and
rattled it into the drainer before she turned to him. She dried her hands
on the teatowel, and stared at Jack a long moment, as if he were some tiny
drifting object--on an ocean, in a dewdrop. Then she had reached down and
pulled him from his chair, pressed him against her. "They teach you lies,
Baby," she had said. His face against her bosom, Jack could barely breathe,
and what breath he had was all Ruby, the soapy smell of her, like crayon
and old flowers. He had wanted to say something scientific then, something
scalding, Episcopalian, and clear, but it wouldn't come. Instead, he felt
immediately sorry, regretted that he had purposely left out the part about
JACK GLANCED OVER at Emmett now, who seemed to be studying the individual wires of the porch screen. It was hard to tell if the storm was thinning out. Wasn't there only a certain amount of rain that could fall? Mrs. Sayers would know the answer to that. Jack put the rest of the playing cards down and walked into the kitchen. The rain made everything dark except for the tiny blue jets of the pilot lights. He walked down the hallway and stood at Ruby's door as if he were invisible, or could be if he tried. He pushed the door open another inch, just enough to sort out the shadows and find her, the wedding ring quilt tucked to her chin, the dark links almost weighty in the candle light, as if they held her down, safe and sturdy. Ruby's eyes were closed, though they seemed to be twitching, or maybe that was just the candle flame dancing like a small burning person.
An old baby, Jack thought, as he looked at his grandmother now. About a hundred-year-old baby, he thought, and felt sorry again for what he had said to Ruby about lightning creating the world, the life of the world. The candle light flicked over the mound of the quilt and onto the walls. Through the gauzy bedroom curtains Jack could see the storm in flashes of quick far away lightning.
It was a crazy thing Jack thought of then, babyish even, something he would never really do. He stood in the doorway, made himself stand there. The storm looked like something written on the curtains, erased, then written again. The crazy thing Jack thought was how much he wanted to crawl under the covers, snuggle up until he and Ruby were both locked tight under the links of the quilt. The soapy smell of her again was what he wanted.
Jack tried to think himself back up in Friendship 7, a burning dot above the rain, tried not to move a muscle. Lies, Baby, is what Ruby had said, then pulled him so close he had let himself be smothered there, almost within her. So close he thought he could feel the stirrings, the damp flutterings between her breasts that were the words before they started, "You know they teach you lies?"