Aoife Fitzpatrick lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. She studied at the School of English, Trinity College. The Observable Universe is her first publication. A writer of short stories, she is also completing her first novel for young adults.
The Observable Universe
Chris wants to talk to me. Apparently the child has something to say to his father. And it has to be in person.
Martha delivered the summons.
‘You know what it’s about,’ she said.‘I’m not going to steal his thunder. Just come over.’
The dial tone kicked in before I could make my excuses.
I’m too obedient for my own good. One F train later and my feet are going numb in the snow while Chris’s cactus collection swelters on the kitchen windowsill above me.
I cannot believe that a nine-year old is about to give me a dressing down. I swear, this better not be about the flashlight because if that’s the only thing Chris remembers about stargazing with his old man, I’ve no hope of ever making that kid happy. He’ll have something to say about me smelling of smoke too, but for as long as I’m paying for his Carroll Gardens apartment, I will combust my cigarettes in the Brooklyn air at my leisure.
If I’d picked up a red flashlight when we went to buy the telescope there wouldn’t have been anything for us to fight about. But that was a weird day. We were outside the store on Ninth Avenue before I even realized that dad’s office was across the street. A month earlier, Jack Senior would have been able to see us from his desk—me and Chris going into B&H where two floors of technology heaven were about to fry my son’s brains. I wouldn’t have given dad a thought if he were still alive and watching over Hell’s Kitchen, but because he was gone, I could think of nothing else. While Chris watched crates zipping along the ceiling conveyor, trying to guess which one was ferrying his new telescope to the register, I had this urge to call dad’s old extension.
Processing claims made him feel so big that he couldn’t have seemed smaller to me. Yet there I was, squeezing my cell phone in my hand, wishing that I could hear the obnoxious tone of voice he’d always used at work. I was desperate to reach him to say, ‘Dad, you were cheated. With your top-drawer health insurance, you should’ve had months in hospital, pumped full of obscenely expensive drugs. I’m sorry it all ended with a coronary and a D-O-A.’
I took Chris up to the roof that night. As far as the flashlight went, I thought we improvised well. I got him to put a filter over the end of my regular halogen; a flattened square of red cellophane that I’d saved from a box of cinnamon candies. He didn’t blink once when I explained that it takes half an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. That’s how I know he understood me, because he did that thing where he stares until you’ve stopped talking then clicks his lids shut and swallows hard like a frog. It’s difficult enough to find Betelgeuse in the orange blare of the city without dazzling yourself with white light while you read your star maps. I made sure that wrapper was fitted on good and tight with a rubber band before I brought the telescope tube up. Chris followed me with the tripod, banging the legs off every wall, but I didn’t say a word about that because I choose my battles.
Betelgeuse, the shining dot on Orion’s shoulder, has been my son’s obsession ever since he heard that it could go supernova any day. It’s not likely to implode in his lifetime but that doesn’t dull his enthusiasm. At least once an hour, he’ll spin the wheel on his planisphere, lining up the date and the time to find where Betelgeuse is in the sky. As he likes to explain, daylight is no obstacle. The flare will be visible to the naked eye no matter when the supergiant collapses. That’s why life with Chris is punctuated by moments of silence when he points his arm at the sky and everything stops while we watch for a bloom of dead-star light.
He wouldn’t be as good at locking-on to heavenly bodies if dad hadn’t bought him that compass for his birthday. It’s one that he can wear like a watch, and he only takes it off to bathe away the film of little-boy dirt that he accumulates wherever he goes. He had his hand over the rose, cradling his wrist as if he’d hurt it, when he asked about my father.
‘Where’s granddad?’ he said.
It seemed like a strange question. He was at the burial after all. But when I saw his face looking strained in the shadows, I knew his angst must be of the metaphysical variety.
‘Hasn’t your mom explained?’ It didn’t seem like Martha to leave an emotional stone unturned.
Chris shrugged his shoulders, bringing them almost level with his ears.
‘Yeah, she did. She said ... you know ... heaven.’ There was a long pause before he added, ‘But you don’t believe in God. So what do you think?’
I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’s always been a thoughtful child. But with no idea what to say, I tried to buy time, studiously clamping the telescope onto its mount.
Chris idolised his grandfather. Maybe I’ll always be outraged that Jack Senior had the love affair with my son that he never had with me, but any idiot who saw them catching bluefish in the Montauk surf last summer could have seen that it was a two way street. How could I tell Chris what I believe? That dad is as spent as any of the waves that heaved over the top of his waders at the base of the lighthouse that day on Long Island; that the materials which came together and metabolized him into being are parting ways, and there is nothing left of who he was in this world or any other. I couldn’t confess to my son that I’ve been finding it hard to come to terms with these things myself, even after all of my father’s coldness and crippling conservatism. While ninety-nine percent of me accepts his complete extinction, the other one percent cannot and surprises me by shrivelling with grief and anxiety every time I think about it.
Chris watched me, open mouthed, as if he were hoping for some class of good news. I’d let his grandfather take him uptown to Saint Patrick’s for Sunday service too often, so even though I wanted to tell him it was all baloney, I could see he wasn’t ready. That’s when I heard myself making up a story for him.
‘I can’t prove that there’s no heaven, Christopher,’ I said. ‘The universe is pretty big. Some parts of it are so far away that, even if you had the best telescope in the world, you still wouldn’t be able to see them. The light just hasn’t had enough time to reach the Earth yet. So if there’s a heaven, or a place that people go where we can’t see them anymore, maybe that’s where it is. Way out there ... outside the observable universe. It could be that we live in one pocket of the cosmos, and granddad is in another.’
My voice wasn’t shaky, but I started to mist up. Knowing bull when he heard it, Chris raised an eyebrow at me. He didn’t get it; that I love him and want him to be okay. Same as – it turns out – I loved my asshole of a father.
I admit that I was stoic for most of dad’s viewing at the funeral home. The curtain had closed on our relationship and there were no bright spots to be missed. But as his friends and colleagues started to file in, signing the condolence book and saying what a ‘fine man’ he’d been, I looked over at him in his open casket, his rosary beads woven through his fingers, and had this vivid memory of my grandfather’s funeral.
I’d never seen a corpse before that day. I was hiding outside the funeral home, sidling around the walls, too nervous to go in. The next thing I knew, my dad came and picked me up. He carried me into a room full to bursting with people paying their respects, and we went just far enough into the crowd for me to see into the casket. I was afraid. I thought it was one of his life lessons, that he was saying, ‘Here son, here’s what a dead body looks like. Now grow a pair and get over it.’
It was only when I saw dad lying there in his own nest of white polyester that I realised it wasn’t an education. It was simply that his father was dead and he’d come to find his boy. There was an odd sensation in my head as my memory recalibrated, its emphasis shifting. I started to remember how we stood in the middle of that crowded room as though we were on our own island. As he held me, dad’s hands were warm against the bare skin of my legs and he whispered to me that everything was okay. It wasn’t a platitude; it was kindness. He was gentle, mindful of my fears, telling me not to be shocked by how grandpa looked. The old body in the coffin was the car that he’d used on Earth, he said, and he wouldn’t be needing that jalopy in heaven. I’d been too busy thinking about my seven year old self to see that dad was clinging to me, his child a buoy amidst the sea of strangers and acquaintances.
Looking at my father’s old jalopy, my head buzzed like a fluorescent tube. There had been a moment, long ago, when that bastard in the box had loved me. In his mourning, he’d found the same solace in me that I’d been finding in Chris since mom had called me from the emergency room. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to wake him up, to tell him that I knew.
My face collapsed, contorting into a Halloween-mask. I couldn’t straighten myself out, not even when Martha gave me that smug nod of approval for finally showing some emotion. All I could do was give in to the snot and the tears and curse the fact that we’d left Chris at home. I’d wanted to protect him from what I thought had happened to me.
My hands were leaving clouds of fog on the plastic of the telescope as Chris looked on. He seemed disappointed with my every move, but at least I managed to resist my usual tics of embarrassment; the throat clearing and ear scratching.
‘Let’s find this star,’ I said, parlaying my agitation into enthusiasm. ‘Quickly now. Before it blows up.’
Chris was relieved. He picked up the planisphere and started fumbling with the flashlight. He was twisting the head, trying to turn it on, but by the time it lit up, he’d flipped the candy wrapper off the end. He threw that beam of white light around like a drunk who can’t piss straight and, wondering why it wasn’t red, he shined it right into his eyeballs. He was too dazzled to see the square of cellophane drifting over the wall. I couldn’t catch the wrapper and we didn’t have a spare.
‘Chris,’ I said. ‘Gimme that thing.’ I shouldn’t have grabbed, but I swiped it from his hand. ‘Jesus ... you’re some genius.’
From the corner of my eye, I saw Chris stiffen, his hand still hovering in the air where it had last been holding the light. After a few beats, he lowered it dramatically. On his face was a flash of Jack Senior; and I startled. It was the same look of dignified hurt that dad gave you if you even disagreed with him, never mind dared to criticize. I watched as Chris’s head tilted backwards, eyes cast down like he was bearing a flare up of stigmata. Whatever was on his mind, he wasn’t about to reveal it. Like his grandfather, he was going to extort my remorse with silence, pursed lips and shallow sniffs. He waited for me to mount my defence, ready to use every word of it against me.
I can’t count how many times this bait has been offered to me, or how many times I’ve taken it, laying myself out on a platter to be carved up. But with dad gone, Chris could’ve waited until every star in the cosmos had burned out before I’d be hooked again. I held my breath, tightened every muscle in my neck, wedged my tongue against my teeth.
Chris’s composure was absolute.
‘I can’t see,’ he said, as if this were somehow my fault. ‘I’m going back inside.’ He felt his way through the door frame, slow enough to allow me the chance to apologise.
I did not.
He disappeared down to the apartment. Martha picked him up an hour later. She’s taken his side, of course. How is it that my father’s impunity has skipped a generation? All around me, there are pieces of Jack Senior’s personality taking up residence in the people who’ve survived him. My forty year old sister, driven to madness by dad’s constant wariness when he was alive, has bought a burial plot beside him in Queens and has resolved to stay in the job that’s likely to put her in it. Even Uncle Joe, who used to go scarlet and wave his hands like he was choking whenever dad criticised his wife, has started to say, in reverent tones, that Jack Senior was right about her. But the jackpot – dad’s infallibility – has somehow gone directly to my son. I can’t help thinking that it was my birthright. Not his.
The doorbell is backlit, a halo around Martha’s maiden name. It’s tacky when I press it, the work of a little boy too young to have a key.
At the sound of the buzzer, I shoulder the door. The warm air inside sends me into shivers as I climb to the second floor. Through the spindles of the staircase, I can see that the apartment is already open, offering glimpses of white walls and the Degas prints that I’ve always hated. On the landing, I stop to peel off my coat and, although there’s no sign of anyone, I hold it out while I invite myself in, as if I’m expecting someone else to take it and hang it up.
I’m in the living room before anyone acknowledges me. Chris is standing in the middle of the room with Martha’s hand on his shoulder. It seems rehearsed. There’s an air of intervention about it and I’m a little surprised that no one else has emerged from behind the furniture.
It’s Chris who makes the first move.
‘Hey dad.’ He steps away from Martha’s protection, wringing his hands but looking me right in the eye. ‘I was thinking how upset you were the other night,’ he says, ‘and I was talking to my teacher about it.’
I dart a glance at Martha, expecting a black-eyed scowl and the waving of custody papers. Instead she’s smiling. I surmise that it’s the savage pride of a mother egging her son on to become a man, but before I have a chance to say my piece, Chris says, ‘C’mon’.
He takes my hand and drags me down the hall to his bedroom. ‘What’re you doing?’ I say, but he’s too fired up to listen.
‘Lie down,’ he says, shoving me towards the mattress. ‘Mom, close the shutters.’
There’s nothing left to do but cooperate because he’s acting like the greatest show on Earth is about to start. I sit on the bed as Martha secures wooden panels over the window panes. By the time Chris bounds onto the bed beside me, she’s gone, the door clicking shut as she leaves us in near darkness.
Chris flops backwards, crossing his ankles and putting his hands behind his head as if he’s lying on grass gazing up at the night sky.
‘Look,’ he says.
It’s not the time to tell him that I don’t like surprises. I lie back, clutching the comforter like I’m lowering myself into a vat of snakes. But as soon as I’m horizontal, I see it. On the ceiling, there are two intersecting ovals, both drawn in fluorescent, green paint. Each of them is teeming with glow-in-the-dark stars.
I don’t have to spend long wondering what it’s all about. One of the ovals has a photograph of me and Chris in Coney Island glued in its middle, the skeleton of the rollercoaster just visible behind us. And, shining out from the intersection of the two egg shapes, there’s a lone star, much bigger and brighter than all of the other plastic beacons. This five-pointed beauty is labelled Granddad.
I am a monster.
I stare at Chris’s wobbly handiwork and listen to his excited breath. How could I have engendered a boy capable of anything so staggeringly, beautifully guileless?
‘Teacher said you’re right. There really are galaxies out there that we can’t see.’ He’s hoping that his fourth-grade teacher’s approval will bolster my self esteem, so I make vague sounds of fascination and gratitude. ‘But I thought about it,’ Chris says. ‘If that circle is our part of the universe – the one with you and me in Luna Park – and the other one is granddad’s part of the universe ... then maybe one day, the light from his world will reach us and he won’t seem so far away.’
He knows that I don’t believe it. Neither of us does. And though we might not be ready to say it yet, it doesn’t matter. Our heads roll together on the pillow, and we keep looking towards the sky.
©2013 Aoife Fitzpatrick