Authors: Tracy Daugherty
Tags: #One Day the Wind Changed
It's when people are around, and I first nudge the sun with my controls, that I'm most aware of the dome's bleak and toneless color, a cool ceiling over all of creation. Alone in here at night, I relish the lifeless vacancy of my space, its beautiful, mechanical boredom that puts me at ease. It demands nothing of me. It doesn't need my help.
The star ball is like the jar I used to carry as a kid, with holes punched in the lid to keep captured fireflies alive, only
jar, the A3P, contains all of the flashing galaxies. Everything ordered and neatly tucked away until I release the universe, its edges blurring above us, the Star Room becoming the same size as the cosmos.
the cosmos. I take us through an entire day in two minutes. The children's T-shirts burn with fluorescence. Yellow, blue, green spill from the Dallas skyscrapers, then flicker and quit. The bad wiring. My jaw clenches. I want my city bright and safe. Measured, with clear and manageable paths.
As the sun winks out, a poetic fragmentâBaudelaireâskitters through my mind:
declining daystar, glorious, without heat and full of melancholy
. The children gasp at the blackness, then “ooh” as they start to perceive the stars, which are about the size of nail heads. I'm always light-headed at this point, aware that the sky is being cast from below, onto a solid barrier above, then I lose myself in the illusion.
I think of the boxes of Joseph Cornell. I have a book at home, with pictures of his lovely, dizzying art.
Toward the “Blue Peninsula
” is a simple white container filled with wire mesh. Behind the wire, a tiny window opens onto startling blue skyâa glimpse of infinity in a claustrophobic space.
, only fourteen inches wide, its inner walls plastered with star chartsâheaven folded into the equivalent of a cigar box. But most delightful is the
, a box featuring sketches of the sun, and of Earth's orbit around it, behind five fluted glasses, each holding clear yellow or shadowy blue marblesâphase of the moon. Glass on glass. The delicacy of Order. Totality, held like a caught breath inside a small, sealed case.
Somber whole notes. Minor chords. “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere,” I say softly into the mike. I'll bet Zero is smiling in the dark. He brought me this Pascal quote, and I always use it when he's here. “I'm your host, Adam Post.” I fade in the moon. A fictitious evening. Time governed by my sure, pale hand. “The planetarium is a vision generator. There is nothing it cannot demonstrate. So sit back, relax, and enjoy Existence.”
The kids squirm. I show them the major constellations, tell them the story of Aries. I give them dimensions, sizes, distances. Explain the ecliptic, magnitude, orbits. Retrograde motion.
“Excuse me,” Backpack says. “What's magnitude?”
“Intensity of light-the way we measure it.”
Someone pops a gum bubble.
I show them the planets as they'll appear tonight in the sky. “The ancient Maya of Central America had no telescopes, but they tracked stellar movements,” I say. Cue Venus. “What we often call the evening star is really the planet Venus, and the Maya based their 584-day calendar on the time it takes this bright sister of the earth to cycle around the sky. The Maya associated Venus with the god of rain. At their latitude, the planet's absence was shortest in the dry season, longest during showers.
“Now, many of you have probably memorized the phrase âMy Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles' as a mnemonic deviceâthat is, as a way of remembering the names of the nine planets in our solar system. If you take the first letter of each word in that sentence, you can recall the planets in the order of their orbits around the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.” Pause. “Recently, scientists have debated the nature of Pluto, and many now contend that it's not a planet at all. They say it's composed of ice rather than gas or rock.”
Faint stirrings. My eyes have adjusted. I see Zero stiffen.
“This links Pluto with a ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper belt.”
“But that's not fair,” Anna says quietly.
“Anna?” says Ms. Pickett, with her warm, melodic voice, “do you have a question, sweetie?”
“It's not fair that, just because it's made of something different, it doesn't get to be a planet. Is it?” In her voice, I hear the accusation:
“This isn't unprecedented,” I say, glancing at Ms. Pickett. Trust me, my eyes say, I didn't want to follow this path, I wanted to keep things just as they were, but â¦ “The asteroid Ceres was once counted as a planet until other asteroids were discovered, and its true nature could be understood.”
“We studied Pluto just this week, and the books all said I'm confused â¦ are astronomers certain about it, or are they still deciding?” Ms. Pickett asks. “Anna raises an interesting point, I think.”
Believe me. I'm just the man to resolve the impossible. But how? “A consensus has yet to emerge on the scientific definition of âplanet.'”
“But now it doesn't mean anything,” Anna says. Her face is deeply flushed, even in the dark. The death of an absolute. Hard to bear. Her freckles glow like embers in the fake green moonlight. “
Very Educated Mother Just Served Us-what? Nothing. She served us nothing!”
I look at Zero, thinking this might perk him up. He shivers, removes his cap, loses his grip on it.
“The Kuiper belt is a swarm of iceâ” I say.
“It just isn't fair!”
“Thousands of slushy masses, far from the heatâ”
“No fair no fair no fair!” the kids all start to chant.
Ms. Pickett frowns, as if I've knocked the heavens out of whack.
Anna's foot brushes Zero's cap. She picks it up. He tugs it from her fingers. His eyes are wide. Now he rises. He covers his ears with his palms, turns to the group and announces, over the shouting, “Man presents himself as a being who causes Nothingness to arise in the world, inasmuch as he himself is affected with nonbeing.”
Anna cringes. Ms. Pickett stands. The children get quiet.
I'm sorry I lent him, last week, my copy of
The Existential Moment
. But he'd said he couldn't sleep, and at the time it was the closest book at hand.
“Man is the being through whom Nothingness comes to the world. Thank you and good night.”
“You're drunk, sir!” Ms. Pickett says.
He spins to face her and nearly stumbles into Anna's lap. Anna screams.
“Get away from her!” Ms. Pickett shouts.
He falters again. Five or six kids dash from the second row.
“People! People! Quickly! Come with me!” Ms. Pickett motions them toward the portal, as though the building were about to collapse. A scraping of notebooks, the roar of seats snapping up, milk-smell wafting through the not-alleys of Dallas. The kids' sudden motion jostles my balloon; it careens toward Reunion Tower. Mayday! Mayday! My lungs constrict. The Murrah stone zips back and forth on its string. Zero stands still, chin on chest; it's likely his brain chemicals have slipped off the charts. I've never seen him this bad. (What wastelands is
envisioning?) I'll have to take him outside, sit with him until he calms down. At least twice a month, we perform a milder version of this little dance and I'm always surprised at how quickly he circles back toâwhat? Normalcy? Steadiness?
“Please,” I say, wheezing, but it's too late. Ms. Pickett won't look at me. “It's not the end of the world.”
Oh, but it is. It is. The world is ending every minute. Just ask Z. Ask my former lover. The night she left, she held me and said sadly, “You can't save them, you know? Your comets? Your damaged friends? Adam, you can't undo things.”
Ask Marty. “It wasn't true,” he told me, the last time I saw him, in OK City. He held our father's Mobil Oil cap, recovered at the Murrah site. “Remember, Mom promised us? Anything we want.”
have been true. But I always knew it wasn't, didn't you?” He grinned at me. “Ah hell,” he said. “It ain't fuckin' fair, is it?” He put on the cap, got in his car, and drove away from the missing building and from me.
“This way, people. Hurry, now, hurry,” Ms. Pickett calls.
Teacher, Teacher, can't we clasp hands and watch it all crumble? Don't leave me here with nothing.
Wheezing at night, and no one, no one comes.
Anna lags behind, gazing at the star ball. An instrument of betrayal. Faulty packaging for All-That-Is.
Of course, the board will hear about today. Reprimand? Warning? Frank has cautioned me that a few of the old gents have been seeking excuses to reroute the Dollman endowment, to use the money for more “commercial” ventures.
An “Out of Order” sign hung on the Big Dipper's handle.
“If it isn't fair, it shouldn't be done,” Anna tells me.
Remarkable child. Where do you get this
“Is he okay?” She points at Z, who appears to be asleep on his feet.
“Not really, no. But I've learned how to take care of him.”
“Good. Don't forget to make the sun rise again.”
But it's the end of the world.
“Promise?” she says.
Okay. One wish, just for you. “Sure,” I say. “Absolutely.”
She nods, smiles, gazes up at the dome. Then she goes to join her friends.
ight. The sea hugs the tip of the quay. In wind, a forgotten coat, stiff with salt, raises an arm to greet me as I pass. I'm far from the desert that made me, far from myself in sleepless longing for a woman. I must want to lie here on white stone turning colder with each new rush of spray.
Down the shore, unloaded boats bank off the wharf like desert horses rocking in their stalls. I must want to hear this and remember cowboys, drunk, hugging each other, a mare giving birth and biting herself, mad with pain.
Why did I think I could leave the flatness behind? Day after day, under a blank sky, neighbor girls hauled laundry baskets out under the webworms' silk, cracked pecans in the grass, laughing, stringing clothes between black trees loaded with little peaches. The trees just made it through each burning spring. All the while, my father washed his father with a spongeâthe old man was dying, but slowly, year after year, softening like fruit.
Over and over (would he never quit, never live a life of his own?) Dad stroked the dry yellow skin, asked me, “Can you fill this bowl againâwarmâfor me, please?” Diesels whined on the highway out past the house, wind chimes rippled like water.
And tonight it's all one sound: the waves, the sucking of kelp, a girl's laughter from a misty, unseeable distance. I imagine her near, in blue light-panes from the boats, and tell her the whole long story of my love, my failure to get away:
He's put the old man to bed now. His father's whiskers float in the bowl of water; he pauses above me, thinking something I can't name. Outside, a foal is trying to stand
he Sunday service had just ended. Father Thomas had prayed, again, for a budget influx to fix the sanctuary door, which was old and splintered with rusty hinges. The parishioners filed out of the church, through the cactus garden with its seven or eight ancient tombstones (one of them may have been only a rockâno one was certain, as all of the markers resembled rocks, with names and dates long since weathered away). Mrs. Latour gave an astonished cry, which stilled the crowd among the brittle pink flowers and the thorns. Attached to one of the tombstones, embedded deep into the granite, was a ship's anchor made of iron. A rope extended from a large ring at the tip of the anchor, where the rope was tied fast, and rose into the sky until its other end vanished.
Everyone stood aside and made a path so Father Thomas could approach the gleaming object. It appeared to be wet, though this was not possible; the day, like all the days in West Texas, was arid and dusty. The young priest bent to inspect the shiny hooks jutting out of the stone. As he did so, the rope rustled, went slack then pulled taut again as though someone in the sunny heavens had given it a good, hard tug. Father Thomas stepped back. The parishioners inched away toward the safety of the church (Mrs. Latour backed into a cactus thorn and gave a little “O!”). A little girl named Hannah, clutching her mother's skirt, said, “Listen!” Everyone stood still. From far above their heads came a low murmur like thunder, but there weren't any clouds, and the more everyone listened, the more the noise sounded like voices, perhaps half a dozen of them, concerned and trying to solve a problem. The rope continued to rustle.
Then Hannah said “Look!” and they all saw a young man, with wavy hair as yellow as the sunlight, clambering down the rope toward the anchor and the stone. He wore pants as blue as the sky. No shirt. His skin was the light brown of blowing dust in the late afternoon. He appeared to be struggling as he moved down the rope. It was as though an element dense and resistant slowed his arms and legs. When he reached the anchor he remained suspended, upside down, on the rope. He did not seem to notice the group, mouths agape, huddled around him among the flowers and the thorns.
From his pants pocket he produced a small silver blade. With it he began to saw on the rope, right where it was knotted to the top of the anchor. As he worked, he weakened visibly, his arm slowing, his grasp loosening on the coils of the line, his face turning blue. After only two or three minutes, and with little success in freeing the rope from the massive iron weight, he dropped the blade and fell to the ground. Dust puffed around him. The crowd backed away again. Again, Mrs. Latour pricked herself in the rear. “O! O!” she cried.