Tiny Points of Life
It’s a steep climb, this last bit of road.
John winces a little at the metal whine blending the air into a kind of sonic foam. He does not like the engine to work so hard. That’s when the problems always seem to happen. Because when you force something – anything—to perform against its nature, that’s when the thing – whatever it is—stops performing at all. That’s when everything stops and the thing sits down in the middle of the road and refuses to budge another inch. That’s when you are sorry you were so foolish as to think that if you just pushed it hard enough, if you were persistent enough, you could change the nature of the thing. That’s when you wish you could do it all over again with a little more respect.
School buses were no different than anything else. School buses were made for the flat open roads. Like an ocean liner was made for the open sea. Buses were not made for steep climbs any more than ocean liners were made for scaling waterfalls.
The road straightens.
John flicks a glance up into the mirror. His eyebrows are a dirty white. He needed a haircut. The skin of his forehead is furrowed. It reminds him of an old roadmap, a pencil sketch of interstates and rural byways, faded from too many years up on the dashboard taking the sun.
The children sense arrival. There is no way for them to know. They have never been up here. But they know anyway. They fidget and squirm in their seats. There is a shriek half-way back. Mrs. Clark stands and turns and points in the general direction. It is enough to do the trick. For the moment.
She sits back down next to Mr. Evans and pretends to adjust her purse so that her knee slants sideways just enough to press itself against his. Mr. Evans, looking out the window at the thin, metal, snow-trimmed railing whose role in the world is to immunize a six-ton bus from the laws of momentum and gravity, does not move his hand from the seat. Mrs. Clark looks out over the wide yellow hood sucking up the road. She pays no obvious attention to her own hand, a veined leaf floating earthward to cover the back of a gold-banded tortoise.
“How much longer?” It is a plaintive query from the medusoid-headed girl directly behind the driver’s seat.
“Do…not…speak…to…the…bus…dri…ver,” says Mrs. Clark sternly, her head turned toward the child but her back and limbs perfectly still so as not to disturb the delicate, clandestine arrangement on the seat beside her. “How many times do I have to ask you? Whitney? We are almost there.”
“I have to pee,” says Whitney.
“We’re almost there.”
The observatory squats like a marble toad on a prominence connected to the parking lot by a snowy concrete path. John pulls the bus directly adjacent to the path, stops and opens the doors. Cold air floods in as Mrs. Clark stands and shouts her instructions about coats and mittens and hats and snack bags and about walking single file behind Mr. Evans.
“And be sure to thank Mr. Singer on your way out for such a fun and safe ride up the mountainside.”
They file by, one-by-one, thanking him.
“Thank you, Mr. Singer.”
“Thank you, Mr. Singer.”
John nods and smiles. Nods and smiles.
When they are all out, moving up the path like a fat coral snake, Mrs. Clark zips up her coat and looks down at him. The severity in her eyes is an animal in a small cage.
“I don’t appreciate all of the looks, John,” she says. “The way you appear to be keeping tabs on me and Mr. Evans. Up there in your mirror. It’s really none of your business. You don’t know everything. You don’t know anything.”
John shrugs. He drops his arm down beside the seat and grabs his lunch bag. He opens it and looks inside. He reaches in his hand and moves some things around with his finger, as if to remember what he had packed for himself. The last of the bologna in some foil. A couple of carrots from the garden before the winter came. A bit of cheese. Some stale crackers in a baggie.
“You’re in no position to judge us. You’re not married. Are you, John.”
It was not a question. John shakes his head anyway, still looking into the depths of the paper bag.
“Right. You’re free as a bird. You don’t know the things that can happen in a marriage.”
But, of course, John did know the things that can happen in a marriage. He had been married three times. A serial carnage of matrimony and a colossal waste of ceremony; an emotional wreckage stringing the vows together like a sad sort of garland.
He had tried. They had tried. Bless them. Each of them had tried. Until each had frozen from the effort. And then, in turn, they had stopped trying.
And then he had stopped trying, knowing better than to try again.
And now here he was at the end of a lecture about what he did not know about marriage. Of course, Mrs. Clark had no reason to know. He had always been an unattached loner in the shallowness of her memory. Ten years. Eleven. Beginning on the day he had been saved.
Mrs. Clark had played the organ that first day. I’d stay in the garden with Him / Though the night around me be falling…
“You’re not going to say anything? Just going to sit there? Judging me.”
John looks up at her, saying nothing.
“Fine. Let’s go. Bring your lunch. I don’t want you sitting out here in the cold wasting gas. We could use another pair of eyes anyway.”
She steps down off the bus out into the cold air, turns and looks back up at him.
“Well?” she intones, her teeth the color of the snow.
John stands, puts the keys in his pocket, and follows her up the path just as the tail of the snake is disappearing into the observatory. He looks back occasionally at the bus, just to make sure the lights are off and that he has not forgotten anything. It sits quietly at the curb, a black-footed salamander with the words Grace Christian Fellowship stenciled along its dingy yellow body.
The small arm grows like a time-lapsed weed.
“Is that the eye of God?”
They are seated on the floor, legs crossed, in a clump before a large screen. John, coat on, sits in a folding chair against the wall in the shadows along the back of the room. Mrs. Clark and Mr. Evans, standing guard over the pile of coats and lunch bags only moments ago, have abandoned their post for places unknown.
John crosses his legs.
“Well, I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. I suppose it all depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? This is called Andromeda. Say it with me.”
She is young. Thirty maybe. Sleek black hair. Draping magenta blouse. And a little thing, too. A hummingbird poking at the flower of light on the screen.
“The Greeks believed that Andromeda was a beautiful princess rescued by her future husband, Perseus, from a terrible sea monster.”
There are giggles at preposterousness.
“But to astronomers Andromeda is a special kind of galaxy called a spiral galaxy. Does everyone know what a galaxy is? Raise your hand if you know what a galaxy is.”
The children knock shoulders in the rush to respond. Blades and shoots stretch upwards toward the light. The hummingbird pecks at the flower.
“I want you to look closely at these tiny points of light.”
She points to another, and another, repeating herself.
“Tiny points of light. Tiny points of light. Tiny points of light. Each one of those tiny points of light, the smallest that you can see, is actually hundreds or thousands of stars just like our sun.”
They are shocked.
“Each … like… each one of those tiny points of life is a thousand suns?”
“Not life. Light. And yes, sometimes hundreds of thousands of suns. The Andromeda Galaxy has a trillion suns. That’s a thousand billion different stars.”
“But how come … but… but…”
The poor thing is short-circuiting. Her little mind is melting. The rescued princess now seems more plausible. John unzips his coat.
“You see, it’s because they are so very, very, far away that we cannot see each of those stars individually.”
“So…like…how come they’re so close together?”
“Oh, they’re not so close as they seem. Each one of these tiny points of light is separated from all of the other tiny points of light by trillions of miles.”
She watches them. Waits for it to sink in. John uncrosses his legs.
“Sometimes things that seem to be right next to each other are actually so far apart that it would take millions of lifetimes to travel the distance.”
“In fact, these tiny points of light are so far away from you, that it takes over thirty thousand human generations just for the light to travel that far to reach your eyeballs.”
There is a nervous, uncomfortable giggle at the intimacy of that word – eyeballs – as they contemplate an ocular puncture from an arrow of light loosed from a cosmic bow so long ago. The oldest among them is thirteen. One hundred fifty-six months.
“When we look at beautiful Andromeda, we are seeing what she looked like over two and a half million years in the past. When you look up at the stars, boys and girls, you are time traveling.”
John felt something in his heart. As though the arrow, after so many years of travel, had missed its mark.
“God… it’s like… it’s like time travel!”
Mick Kelly had been a talker. He never seemed to stop. Which had been more than okay by John, who was uncommonly shy for seventeen and was just as happy for Mick to carry both sides of the conversation.
It had been an uncomfortable afternoon for John, an unwilling hostage on his parents’ August sojourn to the Georgian countryside. The Kelly’s were school friends of his parents. John had never been out of New Hampshire. He was a sullen child and liked to be left alone. They thought that perhaps it would be good for him to experience another planet.
So Georgia it was.
Mick was John’s age, but of another species. He was athletic, for one thing. He carried a football or a softball wherever he went, tossing it from one hand to another as he walked and talked and watched television. John was not athletic. He liked to read books, ironically enough, about other species from other planets.
Mick was as garrulous as John was taciturn.
Mick smiled and laughed easily. John kept his feelings mostly locked away in the stoic tradition of his father’s side, trotting them out at gunpoint only every so often to remind others that he was human.
Mick loved everything about music: playing it, writing it, listening to it, feeling it, philosophizing about it. John did not dislike music. He liked to listen to the radio. But he liked it in the same way he liked to watch fence posts or telephone poles zip past the window at even intervals on long drives. It offered something regular. It reminded him of his own heartbeat. That is to say, it was something he took for granted. Mick Kelly did not.
Mick had been so hospitable it made John uncomfortable. After dinner, as their parents had reached a crescendo of remembrance that only comes with the fourth hi-ball, Mick had taken John to a spare room in one wing of the spacious Kelly home. Mick had made it into something of a music studio with orange sound-proofing sponge on the ceiling. There were three different guitars on stands and a drum set in the corner arranged around a black stool. The walls were lined with shelving that held every circle of vinyl ever pressed.
They spent an hour or more listening to The Beatles and The Stones and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Mick gushed about the revolution inherent in musical expression. It shatters all human barriers, he said. It can’t help but bring us together, he said. John mostly just listened and nodded. Between songs he could hear his parents howling. He wanted desperately to leave, but that was not happening anytime soon. He was human enough to know that simply waiting in the car like a dog was not an option.
When they were done listening to music Mick asked if John wanted to walk down to the lake. What else could he say?
Outside, the day was dying its glorious death, scorching the cumulous underbellies, and agitating the birds into the secreting trees. The air, quite unlike his northern home, was so warm and thick and fragrant it was like drinking a kind of nectar. He could not remember ever having been so conscious of the act of breathing.
They had walked across the front lawn, the house blazing yellow light behind them, into the darkening sweetgums, sycamores, and magnolias that surrounded the property like great leafy cliffs. As they walked, Mick tossed his football from one hand to another and talked about how what he really wanted to do was be a songwriter.
“I want to put words to the music all around us,” he said. “And I wanna put the things people say to music. I wanna be a part of the music revolution, John. I want to break down those barriers, you know? I wanna give people the words they want to say. The words they need to say. Know what I mean?”
John had made a kind of a noise that might have passed as an affirming word of English and nodded.
“Here.” Mick tossed him the ball and ran up the path. “I’m goin’ long.”
John threw the ball clumsily. It ricocheted off an oak and skittered off in the opposite direction. Mick laughed and ran after it dodging the trees like they were offensive linebackers.
By the time they had reached a clearing large enough to see anything more than canopy, the sky was deepening out of periwinkle into a mottled purplish bruise. The night was swelling with the sound of crickets. Mick lifted his head and sang out:
“And now the purple dusk of twilight time…steals across the meadows of my heart. That’s Nat King Cole. You like Nat King Cole, John?” Mick didn’t wait for an answer; probably because by then he did not expect to get one. “That cat’s got a voice like velvet. But Hoagy Carmichael wrote the words. That’s what I want to do. I want to write something like that some day. Purple dusk of twilight time. That’s beautiful, don’t you think? I do.”
They crossed a glade and then slipped back beneath the trees, John following the sound of Mick’s voice, alternately talking and singing to himself, as the dark closed in around them. Just up ahead – there, then there, then over there – fireflies winked on and off. John thought at first that he was seeing stars.
The trail ended abruptly at the shore of a small, still lake. Mick traced the water’s edge to a narrow pier with a square dock at the end. Mick was pulling his shirt off as he reached the end. He kicked off his shoes and shed his pants and his underwear and dropped them all on top of the football.
“C’mon Johnnie Boy!”
In he went, like an arrow, disappearing beneath the dark surface with a sound that the crickets seemed to devour right out of the night air until it was gone.
He resurfaced with a splash and a whoop.
“Come on in, John!” he shouted. “Ain’t no snakes in here! Turtle or two maybe. Salamander. Some fish. It’ll be alright. Don’tcha swim?”
John had walked to the end of the pier and sat down, hanging his legs over the water. It was answer enough.
“Alright then,” said Mick. “Don’t know what you’re missin.”
He disappeared again into the depths. The moon was low on the horizon, its reflected light from a sun ninety-three million miles away whispered through the Virginia pines like a breeze, silvering the surface of the water.
After a while, Mick hoisted himself out of the lake. He stood for a moment at the edge of the pier, towering over John, as if contemplating whether to dive. John’s hand, pressed flat against a plank, grew wet in the runoff.
He did not move it. Did not look up. He kept his eyes fixed on the shimmering water. He breathed in and out.
Mick began slicking the water in silver sheets from his naked body. First one leg, then the other. He pulled on his pants and sat down on the dock next to John, panting a little from the exertion. He laid down and slipped a hand beneath his head.
“God Almighty,” he said. “Look at those stars.”
John turned and look back down at Mick Kelly, half-dressed, dripping wet, his perfect beatific face washed in moonlight with such an expression of rapturous wonder that for the first time since he had arrived, young John Singer had wanted to say something. Had wanted to shout something. Had wanted to scream something.
Had wanted to sing something.
But the words would not come. He felt as if he might explode. All he could do was look on dumbly as Mick raised a wet, gleaming arm and pointed at the sky.
“There’s Venus,” he said. “You’re not even looking. Lay down.”
John had laid down and looked up at the sky, following the length of Mick’s muscular arm with his eyes, the universe exploding before him.
“Did you know the light you’re lookin’ at is millions of years old? All that out there is like an old movie. Takes the light that long to reach us. Ain’t that just a trip? God… it’s like… it’s like time travel! And see that one there? Looks like one star but there’s two of ‘em there, and they’re millions of miles apart. Almost makes your head hurt.”
His head did hurt. Everything hurt. His heart hurt. So much so that he wept in silence there on the dock as Mick sang all of the songs he could think of about the stars and waxed about the perfection of nature and about how all music was a kind of prayer to that perfection. He counted three shooting stars and gasped at every one.
“You ever had a perfect moment, John?”
John was silent, daring not a single breath in the dark, so close to Mick Kelly that someone only three feet away would swear their bodies were touching. The crickets soared. The shoreline rustled. The world was alive.
“This is one of those moments. For me it is. It don’t get any better’n this. When you see somethin’ this beautiful. Somethin’ perfect beyond words. Something so close but so far away that it almost hurts. You never forget it. You’ll always have it and you’ll never have it again. It’ll be with you forever and it’s already gone.”
The children are disappointed about the telescope. The young astronomer says it is still too early to see out into space. Too much light she says.
“You will all just have to come back sometime with your parents for one of our night tours.”
“You let people come here at night?”
It is little Whitney. Again. For the past three hours her arm has been up far more than it has been down.
“Oh yes. We have a group coming in tonight to look at all kinds of celestial objects. It looks like it is going to be nice and clear too.”
“Can we stay? Pleaeaeaeaease….”
Whitney contorts her face up into the rejecting countenance of Mrs. Clark, whose lipstick is fresh and burning.
“Whitney?” says Mrs. Clark. “Now what did she just tell you? I know you heard her. You need to come back with your parents if you want to be here at night. Go get your coat and line up. It’s time to go.”
John watches the line growing at the door. Mr. Evans is inspecting the troops. Small groups of people, adults, are arriving in groups of three and four for the next tour. The night tour.
Mr. Evans is zipping up coats. John thinks of the ride back.
“You didn’t touch your lunch, John.” Mrs. Clark points accusingly to the bag at his feet. “Kind of silly to pack it if you’re not going to eat it.”
John looks at her. He sees that she is probably considered attractive in her circles. Or that she could be. The skin. The hair. The white teeth. The unsmiling eyes.
But he sees also that she is not lit from within. She has never known beauty. Perfection. If she has, then she has allowed herself to forget it and it has died within her. Or, worse, she has spent a life pushing it away, forsaking it for a self-loathing that devours her daily like a black hole until she is nothing but skin and hair and teeth and unsmiling eyes; until even her God is but a bit of jewelry swinging from a hollow husk in the mirror.
And in the mirror of her unsmiling eyes, he sees tragedy staring back.
“Don’t you think you should have warmed up the bus? We’re all going to be cold now. John? Speak John. You look lost.”
“I became lost a long time ago, Margaret,” he says. She seems to blanche at the sound of John Singer’s voice. As though she is hearing its baritone for the very first time. “Now, I am found. Now… Now, everything stops.”
“What? What are you…”
He pulls the keys out of his coat pocket and puts them into her hand. He turns, leaving her with his lunch on the floor, and walks back to the white domed room with the telescope where others are gathering and waiting to take a good look at the past, and to accept it this time; to hear it’s forbidden music and sing its exultant, heartbroken melodies.
To finally take all of its arrows and remember.
The short story “Everything Stops” has been included in a great anthology of short fiction entitled “Modern Shorts” published by Fiction Attic Press. E-book and paperback copies of “Modern Shorts” can be ordered from Amazon through the OwenThomasFiction sister site OTFDistribution.com. The link is here: Modern Shorts.