Authors: Tracy Daugherty
Tags: #One Day the Wind Changed
Damn, if it isn't Zero, slouching in the back of the room. Apparently, he slipped in while I was chatting with Frank.
is Zero's best skill.
“Hi. Come in. Sit down,” I say. “We're about to start.”
He looks around. His real name is Robert McCleod, but I call him Zero because of his fascination with Nothing. He's mildly schizophrenic, and forgetful about his medicine. In fact, he prefers to self-medicate. Vodka, mostly.
“What's the show today?” he whispers.
“Just an intro kind of thing. For the kids.”
“Uh-huh.” He rocks back and forth on his feet, the way he always does when he's nervous (when is he ever
nervous?), the way he did when he first confided in me. It was late one afternoon. I was cleaning the room after a lengthy performance, a show Frank attended “just for fun,” he said, but I felt sure he was there to evaluate me. Zero had lingered until the crowd was goneâdid Frank spot him then?âand I noticed this strange fellow watching me. He looked a bit like my brother, lean and wiry.
Unbidden, he began: “One morning I forgot to bring my pills to work.” I was startled. He cleared his throat. For a while, he had worked as a file clerk in a suburban police department, he told me. “I was sorting fingerprints and, a little dizzy, I noticed how they all looked like big fat zeros. Our fingerprints are supposed to be unique, keys to our individual identities,
, but it struck me, man, that we're all zippo. Zilch. Goose eggs. The prints don't lie.”
He didn't seem dangerous, but I couldn't be certain. He lingered by the curtains. I gripped my broom to my chest. Evidently, he mistook my silence as encouragement to go on. “I tell you this because I figure, as a scientist, you'll appreciate it,” he explained. “Eventually, the police department fired me for misplacing records.” For Zero, this marked the start of a quest to find the original Nothing.
Now, between odd jobs, he spends his days at the main branch of the Dallas Public Library, poring through books or microfilm, or he comes here, trying to get his “mind around the empty center, the pre-Big Bang.” “The Sumerians made zeros, pressing the tips of hollow reeds into wet clay tablets, which they preserved by baking,” he told me one morning. “This is the first record we have of man's awareness of Absence.” The Natural History Museum had already closed by then or I would have sent him to Bowers. Now he's attached to me. I give him books to read on the nights he can't sleep, yellowed volumes I've picked up in secondhand bookstores, or old things Marty and I used to share. I listen to his troubles.
I ask him, “How are you today, Z?”
“People been messing with my
man. Stuff's been disappearing lately.”
Paranoia: a bad sign. He must be off his Stelazine.
I haven't saved his place. Usually he doesn't show up on Fridays when the schoolchildren do. The boy with the backpack has grabbed Zero's favorite spot and refuses to budge. M&Ms won't do it. Nor will a dollar. “I
the stars,” the boy tells me, pointing to the big blue Nbeneath the dome. “This is north, right? Don't try to fudge me.” His fingers are sticky with something. He wipes his hands on the seat. Little creep. You need someone to keep you in line, I think. A stern granny, perhaps, or a big brother pissed at the world. “This is the best place to see Polaris, and I aim to see it,” the boy tells me.
Zero whips off his Texas Rangers baseball cap and scratches his thin brown hair. He's twenty-five, with an adolescent's acne and the balding patterns of middle age. “Adam, man, I got to have my
” he whispers, rocking furiously now. “It's the only place I can see the quark!”
Quarks are Zero's latest kickâan obsession he's indulged for a couple of months now. After the Big Bang, he says, matter and antimatter almost annihilated one another, but there was one extra quark in a corner of the universeâa flaw in God's plan to perpetuate a perfect nothing-that tipped the balance toward messy creation. Inexplicably, the day he ran across this concept in the library, he saw a seagull downtown, a rare sight in landlocked Dallas. He took it as a sign that he was onto something.
His breath smells of alcohol. Ms. Pickett scowls at me. The children are getting restless. “Zero, you're going to have to try a different perspective today,” I tell him, steadying him with my shoulder. “Try this seat. Just once. I'll bet you'll see nothing at all. Won't that be a treat?” He settles warily next to Anna and fumbles with his cap. She picks it off the floor. He snatches it from her hands. “You're welcome,” she mutters, then jams a thumb into her mouth.
way to the console, passing Ms. Pickett. “I hope you enjoy the show,” I say.
She fidgets in her seat. “Thank you.”
“Do you know the stars?”
“Then I'm happy to expand your universe.”
She frowns as if I've made an indecent suggestion.
Zero trembles in his seat, his cap pulled low across his eyes. Anna stares at him. The chairs creak and shift with age. The dome is stained with water spots. Rain doesn't fall often in north Texas, but when it does our firmament suffers. Three or four pesky leaks have resisted all repair attempts. But when the lights dim, and the false stars rise, the dome's skin, the dome itself, vanishes behind illusory depths.
I press a yellow button on my console to prepare the music. Glenn Gould's version of the
is a favorite of mine-soft and sedating, but with a sure mathematical precision. On other days, depending on the show, the airy gaps and mysterious instrumentation of Brian Eno's
Music for Airports
encourages wonder and a spooky anticipation among the crowd.
I flip a switch. A small gray stone, pierced through its middle and attached to a nylon pulley, shoots noiselessly across the horizon. A tiny meteor. No one sees it but me. It's the one part of the show that I perform for myself, and I always start this way. The stone dances, free, across the heavens, past the illusion of clouds.
I lower my lips to the mike and welcome everyone to the Dollman Planetarium.
The Big Bang, I came to call itâthe awful humor of the phrase offered me a kind of comfort. Or maybe it provided a distraction. One weekend, two months or so after the explosion, I drove to Oklahoma City. I had just started work at the planetarium. Clouds and birds wheeled above me.
The Murrah Building's remnants had already been razed.
At Northwest Fifth and Robinson Streets, I circled the chainlink fence draped with teddy bears, strolled around the YMCA and the Water Resources Board. The buildings' windows were boarded, walls pockmarked and clawed. Glass squeaked beneath my feet. Flying ants filled the still, humid air. A toddler with her mother reached for a yellow ribbon on the fence. Above the ribbon a sticker said, “Proud to be an Oklahoman.”
I tried to picture the damaged soul who had conceived of such a wasteland and then carried out the attack (of course I knew his faceâbut only his faceâfrom the news). What had time done to him? When did time
“Cain't imagine one of
did this,” said a man in a Peterbilt cap, strolling with a friend past the fence. His buddy said, “I don't believe it. It's a lie.”
A man standing next to me picked a small gray stone off the ground. “Looks like part of the building,” he said. “You know, I was in there the day it happened.” His eyes misted. “Damn lucky to be here now,” he said. He nodded at empty space. Was he on the level? I didn't know what to say to him. Before he wandered off to talk to othersâa Flying Dutchman of the Heartlandâhe dropped the stone into my palm. Instantly, I imagined it hurtling through space. I looked up. My hand brushed his, just slightly.
Dusk is a red button at the top of the console, sunset a silver lever next to the music's volume knobs. The sun sinks fast or slow, depending on the show, the crowd's mood, or my whims. At the dome's base, representing the horizon, a scale model of the Dallas skyline, with buildings that light up at my command. It gives viewers a sense of the sky's immensity, stretching over our city.
Well. The buildings are
to blaze. Faulty wiring keeps plunging my tiny Dallas into darkness. The tip of Reunion Tower is missing, the result of an overeager janitor swiping at cobwebs with a mop. One night he broke off the lighted ball and we have yet to find it. This year, the trustees have cut our maintenance budget, so now
in charge of the spiders' handiwork.
On the north side, the perforated-aluminum dome has warped in the heat, our air conditioner being unreliable. This blemish leaves the impression that the Milky Way near Draco wobbles a bit, like soap bubbles. In the south, a small aluminum panel has peeled away from the surface: a jagged edge pricking Scorpio's heart. The universe looks a little ragged.
Our newspaper ads tout us as one of the finest educational and entertainment attractions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but we're failing. Our equipment is outdated. Crowds have dwindled, except on school days like today. We're unable to offer people the extravaganzas that blockbuster movies, laser light shows, video games, and computer simulations have primed them to expect. The trustees have begun to question the efficacy of continued advertising. The Dollman family, who seeded our initial endowment three generations ago, has long since ceased to concern itself with our daily operations. Macrocosm on a shoestring.
But I'm proud to have secured my regulars. Since becoming the program director five years ago, I've built a small fan base.
No. No, that's incompletely true.
The fact is, a handful of lonely souls, un-or underemployed, finds our Star Room a more congenial refuge than diners, park benches, or their own stuffy apartments. They drop by when they have nothing better to do, always gravitating toward the same chairs. If I think one or more of the drifters may appear on a particular day, I try to save the seats. “Excuse me, ma' am, I think your children might have a better view over there,” or, âI'm sorry, there seems to be a draft on this side of the room today. Try
Affectionately, I think of Zero and the others as my “comets.” Like space's errant ice balls, they're
inside, unstable, forever circling a void, always coming back around, drawn to me or my shows as Halley's or Hale-Bopp is pulled to the sun. Or perhaps they recognize me as a social castaway too. “Darling, what's so
about fitting in?” my mother used to ask meâyears, even, after I'd graduated from college. Astronomy excites certain sensibilities, I told her: minds attached to symmetry, vast numbers, philosophy, or transcendence.
Obsessives. Dawdlers. Dreamers, flummoxed by the world.
Almost every morning seems the same now, as though time has halted. This morning I stalled, as I do every day, while I unlocked the planetarium's big glass doors. I noticed sparrows gathering on the ground by the remnants of the old Natural History Museum. It's shuttered now. Beside it, in a dirt patch, a stack of two-by-fours lay under a wrinkled blue tarp. An art dealer has purchased the place and plans to turn it into a gallery.
A United jet hummed overhead, lowering its landing gear, heading for DFW, a few miles north of here. Thirty miles or so to the east, the Dallas skyline glimmered, green and gold, in the early morning light. From my vantage point, the city appeared no bigger-and much less uniform and pleasing-than the toy city ringing my dome. A second plane passed. It looked like a sparkling silver skate key. The fields smelled of creosote and sage. Green smells. Black smells. Brown.
I remembered, then, as I stood with the keys in my hand, last night's dream. With minor variations, it was the same dream I'd had the night before. I was standing in a field very much like the one behind the planetarium. My father, wearing overalls and a green Mobil Oil cap, was lying in the charred ruins of a granite building. He got up, dusted himself off, and walked up to me, over broken, tinted glass. He was grinning. I took his hands. They were chalky and cold.
“Fatherâ” I said.
“All I wanted was my social security check,” he said.
“Your mother and I walked in the door â¦ it was a beautiful morning in the city, remember?”
I whispered, “You didn't make it, Father. I'm sorry.”
“Oh.” He looked at his body, then back up at me. “Are you in touch with your brother?” he asked.
“How is he?”
“Neither one of you â¦ you just couldn't seem to
. Why not, Adam? Why did you
Was it your breathing? Never had many friends. I worried like the dickens about the two of you.”
“I know,” I said.
“And youâalways trying to hold firm, keep things steady. You can't do that, you know? Hell, you
know that, son, don't you? You must.”
He turned, walked back to the ruins, and lay down again among the blackened stones.
Before the kids arrived with Ms. Pickett this morning, I sat and watched plane after plane after plane angle for the airport. I watched the sun glide behind clouds (sloppy clouds, irregular, thick; in my sky, they would never, never do).
Stepping to my left now, behind the console, I check the dissolve control on the slide machine, then the projection orrery, which will illustrate the motion of naked-eye planets around the sun on the dome. I reposition the meteor projector, then lower the A3P so it will display tonight's sky, at our latitude, at approximately ten o'clock. The star ball buzzes faintly, a mosquito whine, as it moves. Now we're ready for Glenn Gould.
I dim the cove lights. Piano runs unfold, soft as whispers over the earthy thrumming of the bass notes. Anna watches me closely. I catch her eye and point to the east, where a hot air balloon made of cardboard and newspaper clippings hangs over miniature buildings. I fashioned the contraption, and fastened it with tape and slender wires over Dallas, after reading about an eighteenth-century architect's cenotaph design: a huge, empty ball, illumined from within to resemble, alternately, the night sky and the sun. He wanted viewers, while contemplating death, to find themselves “as if by magic floating in the air, borne in the wake of images in the immensity of space.” The idea, he said, came from watching the Montgolfier brothers' balloons, the first hot air balloons to sail over Paris, just before and around the time of Manet. Anna smiles at the funny blue sphere.