The domes of the Empyrean Observatory appeared shortly before sunset, high above the mesa, blunt rotund spires, exotic mushrooms, their white skins like an alien fortress on a red planet. The world dissolved into a vast lake of fire; rock and outcroppings looked friable in the dying light. The bleached domes atop Blake’s Peak were still miles away from us, but as we drew nearer Beatrice and I were able to identify the different ones from the photograph and diagram I had brought along. Soon Venus and her lover Mars were visible in the lower east section of the sky. We felt as if we had entered a two-dimensional world, as if we would drive to the horizon at the mountain’s base and then sail clear off the edge.

And Beatrice: luminous, a saintly aura, ready to immerse her being into the night and the stars, fascinated with the two of us being here, by our joint adventure. In the moment she became the woman I’d first seen at Brainchild Scientific half a year ago, and the one who’d figured so large in my life since, the one I’d loved and probably still loved and who was carrying our child. Her demeanor was the same as when she had played with the Van de Graf Generator, with the optic wheels and stroboscope, rapt and wondrous, but now with the glow of pregnancy and maternity, albeit an early glow considering she was not that far along. She was a child and a mother and a teacher and a lover rolled into one. Her ethereal presence magnified the world.

“When I was younger,” she said, “my parents sometimes took us to the Shore for a few days, and one night my mother and I got far enough away from the boardwalk lights and crowds, from my sister and my father and my father’s family. My mother and I found a quiet place on the beach to lie down and we could see all these brilliant stars. While lying there on our blanket, my mother told me she was rarely happy, that she’d been unhappy for most of her life, but in that moment on the beach with me, looking up at the stars and hearing the rhythmic fall and hiss of the ocean surf, she valued that moment as one her happiest and said she would always cherish the memory.”

I asked Beatrice if she was still close to her mother. She shook her head and said she’d tell me more about her family at a later time.

Our motel, the Caritas Motel was a non-descript but quaint and clean lodging in faux mission style: stucco walls, small paned windows, terra cotta roof, a palm tree beside a chain link fence that enclosed the swimming pool, a few tacky lawn ornaments including a blithely hospitable senor and senorita standing with their pack donkey. There were maybe eight to a dozen lodgers. The place looked adequate for our needs; we wouldn’t be spending much time here except to sleep. Beatrice and I checked into our separate rooms, washed up, and then regrouped for dinner at a nearby cantina.

As I was unpacking I idly wondered what Gladys might be doing. She had given me a decent send off, calm and civil, and while not overly excited about my trip, I still detected an expression of good will on her part. Gladys believed I was travelling to the Empyrean with a male co-worker, and I thought that maybe my travelling with a woman would not have made much difference to her. The dynamic of our home life had not changed a great deal in recent months—we mostly did our separate things—but Gladys no longer showed resentment toward me or berated me into feeling responsible for her personal happiness or boredom (she no longer seemed bored). And we’d watched a little TV together lately, possibly because I had relaxed my diligence toward constantly working in the home observatory. On one of those nights, while watching “Dallas” (a show I normally loathed), Gladys quickly blurted out, “you’re doing fine!” and we even hugged for a few minutes. I questioned what I may have done, or been doing, to be “doing fine” her comment was so random and out of the blue, but I decided to take the compliment at face value and keep my mouth shut. . . . There’d been no further move toward making love by either one of us, as if New Year’s had been a grand fluke or anomaly. However, the chains and yoke of tension, which had lingered in the air for many months, somehow miraculously dissipated following the act and had remained that way in spite of there being no encore.

Around nine-o-clock we drove the pickup to Blake’s Peak and began our ascent, feeling the dip in temperature, a crystalline bite in the air as we gained altitude. The road to the Empyrean Observatory was a long upwards spiral of asphalt switchbacks on the mottled green hillside, like the “Ancient Stairway of the Seven Planets.” I recalled Jacob’s dream of the ladder joining earth and heaven, and our vertiginous climb to the summit of Blake’s Peak, with its crown of domes and telescopes, felt much like Jacob’s dream.

. . . and behold a ladder set upon the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

The road narrowed, leaving a jagged wall of outcrop above and below us, the drop more precipitous, a plummet into blackness and void. Beatrice gripped my hand in hers and I tried to envision the face of her mother.

Adam Greenfield, one of the resident astronomers, was several years younger than me and a few inches shorter. He had dark hair and eyes to match— large, probing, and inquisitive. His enthusiasm for his work was infectious. Adam congratulated me on my discovery of Scorpius-429. He’d been excited since first reading about the discovery, particularly in light of the observational challenges Scorpius presented to astronomers in the northern hemisphere. I could see that Adam was charmed and smitten by lovely Beatrice, but I also sensed he assumed Beatrice and I were partners or at least sexually linked in some way.

“We get a large number of teachers and classes here,” he said. “Mostly at the secondary school and college level. It is truly wonderful to see students blown away by these giant telescopes. At any given time I have somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen graduate students and interns helping me and Eve Atwater with our projects. And I’m impressed, Mr. Hale, that you build your own telescopes, not unlike George Ellery Hale of Mount Wilson fame.”

“You flatter me, but there’s no relation.”

Greenfield laughed. An exuberant laugh.

“And I’m quite familiar with the Brainchild Scientific catalog. What a marvelous educational tool. Love the optics! You do a great service to science education. Now before I take you to meet my colleague Eve Atwater and tell you about the history of the Empyrean, I’ve planned the schedule so that we will be working in a different observatory with a different telescope each night. Regrettably the “Pride of the Empyrean,” the Primum Mobile, is under telescope time, meaning it is being used by an astronomy team from Sweden. But I promise that you will get to see it. I’ve gotten permission for an hour and plan on having you view a single object during that hour. Tonight we will be working with the
85-inch Cristallinum. So, if you are ready, let’s head on over there.”

Eve Atwater was as soft-spoken and reserved as Adam was manic. “Adam’s Rib” he jokingly called her, the humor of which she did not seem to entirely appreciate. Thin, angular, with ash blond hair and a pleasant but somewhat plain face, slightly unkempt in appearance, but a more tasteful disorder, she was after all a scientist, not a fashion model. Eve was seated at a computer console near the 85-inch Cristallinum telescope and for a few fleeting seconds I experienced vertigo, seeing the elongated barrel pitched forward that way, the angle strongly up and out, rising through the enormous gash that continued to retract as we lifted our eyes hypnotically to the coruscated panoply of stars. The dry silence of the desert was overwhelming. I sucked air into my lungs and realized several seconds later that I hadn’t exhaled, that I’d forgotten to breathe. I had been to a few other observatories back East but never one like this. And Eve appeared so casual, so insouciant, seated at the computer console near the 50-foot long scope. Her lack of amazement was unsettling at first until you remembered she was here almost every night, but still hard to imagine that the routine of being here, of working here, would ever cease to incite wonder. The giant Cristallinum telescope was the Serpent of Eden, tempting her nightly with the forbidden fruit of nebula, novae, and star clusters.

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*part of Great Recession Stories trilogy. Also see “Michael and Walt”

This story took place about six years ago when I was 14 and a freshman in high school. I wrote most of it down then, but have changed or improved a few parts because I’m in college now and know a little more about writing.

The Wicks were our neighbors. Dave and Daria, and their children, Kyle and Katie, lived across the street from us in a large stone-and-mortar house which sat on a big lot apart from the other houses on that block. Before the bad times the house would not have been what you’d call threatening or gloomy, although it always had this feeling of being more private, more separate, like a world all its own. The porch light, with its large incandescent bulb swinging from a chain of wrought iron, cast a puddle of light onto the cement patio, and lamps were always turned on in most of the windows. Not exactly a cheerful house, but behind those windows the rooms looked clean and tastefully decorated and I’d even played in a few of them with Katie so I knew the Wicks had a sense of pride in the comfort of their home. The front yard and grounds were well maintained—white Azaleas that became fringed with brown when the blossoms started to wilt, red Rhododendrons, peonies in June, Birch, Japanese maple and Cherry blossoms. A largely neglected gazebo stood in one corner of the yard. My yard (or I should say my parents’ yard) was too small for a gazebo.

When Dave Wick lost his job after 20 years with the firm as a result of many jobs being outsourced overseas, he tried starting his own consulting business (I’m not sure in what) while the family relied on Daria’s job in municipal government for a steady income and benefits. But Dave’s consulting job never quite got off the ground and soon afterwards towns and cities across the country were slashing their municipal budgets or declaring bankruptcy. Daria lost her job too. That was about a year-and-a-half ago. It’s true that the Wicks had a bigger house than we did and a newer car and SUV. Dave and Daria weren’t very active in the community, they tended to keep to themselves, but they were friendly enough and Kyle and Katie were popular in school. We used to have parties at their house, especially pool parties in the summer and game nights every few months. After she’d lost her job working for the town, Daria worked part-time at the local CVS but she was soon let go from there too, and the family had been scraping by on savings and unemployment benefits . . . until recently.

My parents still had their jobs although my father complained that he had not seen a raise in years. Back in 2008-2009 you were lucky if you had a job, you were lucky just to be working. My Dad would rant at the supper table about how the super-rich (he called them the “one-percent”) were sucking the lifeblood out of the middle class and out of the country and leaving everyone poorer especially in terms of what he called “stagnant wages” which made everyone worse off because the prices of things kept going up. When I asked him about the Wick family, Dad would shrug his shoulders and shake his head, muttering a single word like, “sad or “tragic” and then he would get a faraway worried look in his eye and change the subject or stop talking about it altogether.

I didn’t follow everything that happened over those months. I overheard small tales about a succession of failures visited upon The Wicks—a string of bad luck: the loss of health care coverage and having to pay a couple large medical bills; the SUV needing some unexpected and expensive repairs; the hurricane that felled the Silver Maple in the backyard and stove in a corner of the house between the den or family room and the garage, which left a huge hole in the wall and ceiling.

There’d been talk among the neighbors about whether or not the Wick’s hardship was of their own doing or whether Dave or Daria were responsible and at fault for not trying hard enough. I’d never heard them argue or quarrel. My mother said that the Wicks were “stoics” or “stoical,” a word I hadn’t yet come across until it appeared on an English vocabulary quiz a couple weeks later. My mother had told me to look the word up online, and though I learned the correct definition for the vocabulary quiz, the definition that stayed with me for “stoic” was “Wicks.”

“When do you think they’ll be able to fix the damage to their house?” I asked my father. He didn’t immediately answer me. He then mentioned something about the amount of money involved to repair and reconstruct the damaged corner of the house, the family room, but he added that the Wicks were probably screwed because they had lost their homeowner’s policy because of delinquent payments that eventually led to no payments on the premium. I understood well enough at age 14 that if someone didn’t have an insurance policy and their house was damaged they’d be in pretty bad shape.

“Why don’t we take up a charity drive to get the house fixed?” I said. “Something like a spaghetti dinner, or a dance, or maybe a Bingo night at the church?”

But my father thought it might be too late for charity. A number of families in town were also struggling with money and their job losses, and to ask those families to help the Wicks would appear callous to their own needs. The other families may resent it: “Well, if you’re going to help them why not help us?” I guess that was true. I was familiar with the saying, “The Lord helps those who help themselves” though I never heard it in church. Neighbors and other people had been judging the Wicks, saying that Dave and Daria could turn their bad luck around if they really wanted to, that they had not been making a real effort to get out of the hole and expected the government to help them through a crisis instead of relying on their own initiative. While parts of what my father told me may have been true, he and the rest of the town weren’t exactly right in my opinion. I thought the real reason no one wanted to help was because they were all afraid of getting too close to the Wicks, as if the Wicks had a disease that could be caught, the disease of unemployment and poverty and denial, and everyone feared this particular disease was contagious like a plague spreading through our town and over the entire country.

Daria Wick had never been what I heard older people call a “full-figured woman.” She was slender, long and lean, a little muscular and tan, but still shapely. When I accidentally saw her yesterday afternoon, crossing the driveway to her RAV4 SUV, she had turned for a moment and stared at me as if she didn’t recognize who I was. She was thinner than usual, noticeably thinner, maybe what you’d call gaunt. I was startled by her large liquid eyes and the fear and pain that emanated from them. I knew she would not be pulling the SUV out of her driveway (shopping trips, even for groceries, seemed to have ended), but instead I saw Daria sit in the passenger’s seat for several minutes as she rifled through the glove compartment. Later that afternoon there was a “For Sale” sign on the rear window of the SUV.

I talked to my mother about the Wicks again, how they may have been starving and wasting away. After this second warning, my mother decided that she would try and reach out to them, help in some small way. But no one answered the door when my mother called on them one evening. A day or two later, my mother had seen Daria in the driveway, checking something on the SUV “For Sale” sign, maybe waiting for a prospective buyer. And when my mother began to cross the street and wave, Daria pretended not to see her and turned heel and walked back into the house. Other neighbors—the Grants, the Lorens—had reported similar overtures of charity and altruism only to be either rebuffed or ignored by the Wicks. They didn’t need anyone’s help. They didn’t need anyone’s pity or charity.

The corner of the house that had been damaged remained damaged, and in early fall as the nights began to grow colder there were no lights left on in the family room, and it appeared as a black rectangular block on the end of the house (over time all the rooms would become dark each night). The family room had been sealed off from the rest of the house because squirrels and birds had gotten in through the hole in the roof and made nests and pretty much taken over that part of the house and garage. From a certain position on the street I watched the sparrows dart about the family room; I watched squirrels skitter down from the oak branches that overhung the roof and breach the opening, their cheek pouches puffed out with a stash of winter nuts. . . . One night a burning smell came from that corner of the house and a needle of smoke rose from the stove-in roof. That night I saw Dave Wick standing in an orange ring of a small fire he’d started in the family room, I guess to drive the animals away. Dave stood alone, arched over one of those black iron fire pits that used to be in their backyard, and in the sharper throbs of light his face looked aged and worn but his eyes shone with the crazy gleam of a pyromaniac.

At school we started seeing less of Kyle and Katie. They were absent more frequently. Popular during the previous school year, Kyle and Katie now mostly kept to themselves and would go out of their way to avoid any social interaction. They became unapproachable. By early October I no longer saw them at the school. Kyle and Katie had stopped attending class and other kids said they were being home-schooled. But that might have been an assumption, or a rumor. I suspected that no one really knew what the Wicks, my neighbors, were up to.

One evening I was outside after dinner practicing football cheers with Nicole and Jen in my front yard. We were doing some gymnastics too, cartwheels and stuff, and teasing one another. It was almost dark out when Katie emerged from her gloomy unlighted house and tried to sneak off her property. She reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street and started walking fast. I called to her, “Hey, Katie!” but she walked on, faster, almost a run once I had shouted her name. She wore a black hoody and you could barely see her quickly receding figure in the twilight. Jen said, “Let’s follow her,” and Nicole made an unkind remark about what Katie might be up to, but I said we were not going to follow her and that we had more freshman cheers to work on. But we stood and stared for a long time, the three of us testing our night vision by who could see Katie’s shrinking figure the longest until she finally disappeared. I won the contest (she was no larger than an eyelash by that point) but Nicole and Jen accused me of cheating, pretending I could see Katie when really she was already invisible to all of us. Anyway, by that time it was too dark to practice cheers and gymnastics. We headed indoors and Nicole called her mom so she and Jen could get a ride. And before I fell asleep that night I could not chase away the vision of Katie becoming smaller, shrinking as she walked away down our street toward Tarn Avenue. Sadness had gathered about her in the way she carried herself, hunched and dressed in those shabby black clothes, pretty much invisible, maybe even to herself.

Over time the house had an abandoned look: peeling paint, gutters separating from their soffits and dangling moss, mold, overgrown trees and evergreen shrubs, the lawn spreading vertically and horizontally, choked with weeds, mice and insects, and maybe a couple rats (the Wicks hadn’t the money to buy gas for the mower or pay someone to cut the grass). All the rooms remained dark except for one or two that were most likely being occupied at a given time. Aside from the electric bill, could the darkened rooms also have been sending a signal to the neighborhood— that the Wicks were ashamed and no longer wanted even a stage view of their lives?

And what did we know of the Wicks themselves in those latter days? If you happened to see them step out and aimlessly traverse or circle their property in the twilight of the evening, how did they look to you? Gaunt? Attenuated? Wan? Dwarfed or shrinking? Perhaps emaciated? How would you describe them? As the scant light left over from the day faded and then died completely, would the Wicks become mere wraiths and in the darkness simply float back inside through the crumbling walls of their home? There may come an evening when they have had enough and will not return at all but drift away toward the nearest park or shelter or begin a trek to the nearest homeless camp down the state highway: Dave, Daria, Katie and Kyle as evenly spaced as the strings on a violin. Later, one or two of them may be seen pushing a shopping cart bulging and bloated with the discarded and cast off junk, the detritus of middle-class suburban America (a bloated shopping cart alongside the rail thin human). I doubted that scenario. Being homeless wasn’t the Wicks style . . . but something else might have been.

I never knew the reason behind the fire, and no one had ever discovered the reason. Theories were thrown about in my family and among the neighbors. Everyone knew the house was probably heading into foreclosure, so one theory was that if the Wicks still had a homeowner’s policy they might have made a house fire look like an accident in order to collect on the policy. Another theory was the Wicks refused to leave the house they loved and the arson was committed out of spite so the bank or no one else would ever repossess it. A variation on the spite theory felt the Wicks were not exactly spiteful, but that they were bitter and maneuvered to get publicity and media focus on their plight and the plight of ten million other people in this country who had no jobs, who had no benefits or health care and were losing their homes.

No one knew the real reason behind the fire, but what was certainly known was that the house went up in flames one starlit October evening— a clean, brilliant and dramatic burning. The Wicks might have left fuel inside to spread the fire more quickly, because the fire blazed in a swift symmetrical pattern and covered the house evenly. I stood with neighbors and a growing crowd on the sidewalk, hearing the crescendo of fire engine sirens in the distance. Many said the Wicks by now had taken to the road or were secure in a homeless shelter somewhere, but I had first noticed the darkness flooded with a light that wasn’t the moon or street lamps before anyone else had noticed, and as I raced outside shouting for help I heard a long wailing sort of cry as if someone were trapped inside the house, but then it stopped almost as soon it had started and I soon heard sirens and believed that was the noise I’d heard all along. Someone asked if the Wicks might still be in their house, burning to death, or already dead. No one had so much as tried to run into the house and check. It was simply too dangerous. But the majority of neighbors believed that the Wicks could not have been in that house, and the firemen would of course to tell us if they’d discovered any bodies.

And then a moment later I saw them, the Wicks, and I kept my vision a secret because I knew that I was the only one they were attempting to communicate with. I saw each family member clearly—Dave, Daria, Kyle and Katie—illuminated in a separate window of the house, the children’s faces upstairs, the parents downstairs. In the firelight the candle faces shimmered translucent behind the black window panes, urging their waxen detail in a tranquil but concentrated gaze of failure and release. From the roof down the house separated and caved in, leaving an enormous charred maw. The windows burst across the lawn in a spray of glass. And I watched the faces of the Wicks flare keenly one last time before the World impatiently snuffed them out.