Thursday, September 1, 2011

And Now--An Old Story



Donald L. Flynn

     His house was a 70-minute drive to the shore of a deep lake. He didn't leave it very often. Groceries and supplies were brought to him by a woman friend who lived a few miles down shore. From some accounts, Alzheimer's was taking him quickly, stealing memories of his days in the lab.
     It was time for an interview, probably his last. Hilversum drove south, through valleys walled by grape fields, trying to get an impression of the old man. His feat, which had won him a Nobel, had led to the discovery of pulsars. Hilversum wasn't sure what pulsars were, he'd forgotten to look it up. He would appear stupid in front of the old scientist. Questions to ask, he thought. The white pad beside him was blank.
     Hilversum's editors had said he could be resentful of the past. Didn't want to relive it because of the envy of peers, how it tore him up inside. Made it impossible to work.
     He mused over an angle for the piece: the demons of success haunt aging stargazer. He wouldn't need to know about pulsars. The real story was the price of fame. The sheets of his pad snapped in the wind. Questions came, urging him to pull over. He took his recorder from under the seat.
     On the other side of a long rise, a town appeared. White, wooden buildings, an abandoned gas station with 30-year-old pumps, new fire hall rooted in sterile gravel. An ancient Coke sign told him he was thirsty. He stopped in a dust cloud. Inside, no air conditioning. The screen door clacked shut behind him. He opened the cooler door, grateful for the billowy coolness that fell out of it, grabbed a bottle of strawberry-flavored mineral water.
     The clerk was a huge woman, stern, hawk-faced. He asked her if he was close to Juniper Lane. She rattled off directions.
     Then she said: "Just get there before nightfall. When the fog rolls in, it's dangerous driving."
     "I'll do that."
     "If it ain't foggy, maybe you'll be able to see the lights."
     "Over the lake. They're bright during the summer months."
     "Oh. Where I'm going, I'm sure I'll see quite a few lights."
     The bell signaled his leaving. To his side he saw movement. In the shade of the store was an old husky watching him alertly. One of its eyes was blue. It barked once as he got in the car. He waved to it and drove off, drinking down the mineral water. Ahead of him the road was empty.

     He got lost a number of times. The dirt roads were confusing, perilously narrow. He thought he'd sideswipe an oncoming vehicle. It took some effort to find Juniper Lane. He started thinking about how he would get out.
     The house was not large. A single storey variety of the type that sprang up around the lake in the early '60s. It was tiled a mossy green, making Hilversum think it had risen from the ground, something living. There were few adornments surrounding the house. The yard was small; a brick walk led up to the door.
     Hilversum stepped out of his car, the only one in the driveway. He looked past the house, where the shore started. The silver water rolled indolently up onto the stones. For a while, it mesmerized him. He felt disarmed, the peace stealing his resolve. The drive had left him tired.
     He slammed the car door shut. Barking responded from inside the house. It was high-pitched, that of a small dog. He climbed three wooden steps and briefly rang the doorbell. With the barking, the act seemed redundant.    
     He waited.
     For a long time, there was no answer. Just the insistent yelping. He rang again, a ridiculous thing to do. Creaks came from inside the house, a measured thump. It got louder.
     Then the scientist stood before him, tall, looking very like his own father. Bushy, white eyebrows, thick like a Russian's. He extended a hand. It was strong, the bones felt solid. The joints were swollen by arthritis. At his feet, a miniature collie sniffed warily at Hilversum's loafers. It stood against his leg, tail wagging.
     "I hope you found it okay," said the old man.
     "No problem."
     "You can call me Travis."
     "I have some soup on the stove. Would you like a bowl?"
     "No thanks. I ate before I left."
     The astrophysicist moved slowly, with the aid of a cane. He poured a bowl for himself and they settled in the den. The walls there were lined with books. Hilversum was drawn to them, the old paper smell calling up so much. He scanned the titles: Nichomachean Ethics, Broca's Brain, Alice in Wonderland, Sonnets of the Portuguese. He wanted to hold them.
     "I've read them all."
     "You collect old editions?"
     "They're impressive."
     He became conscious of the silence and tore himself away from the books. He sat down, his questions on the pad on his lap, the recorder whirring on the table between them.
     It was a life story the old man told, maybe more than Hilversum wanted, but he'd rather have more than less. He checked off the questions as they were answered, making a few notes. The scientist was a polished communicator, having spent his last years on the lecture circuit. His voice was deep and smooth. He had known no pressure or deadlines for a long time, the placidity visible on his face. It was as serene as the lake surface outside the window.
     The ripples began to appear after he won the Nobel. He had to be prompted to give details about the rift with his colleagues. They came haltingly. He didn't hesitate to name names, to Hilversum's surprise, though only one of them was dead. Travis looked out of the window as he spoke, his faded blue eyes wilting under the remembrance. Hilversum wrote manically in his notebook.
     "I'm sure this is the meat of your article that you're looking for, is it not? Nobody ever bothers me until Nobel time, and then the phone starts ringing. I will come clean about it now. I'm too old to hide it anymore."
     "Well, there are the readers who will read the article for your discoveries, but most will want to know about the conflict. I know it seems like an awfully low road. There's a deeper story though, and that's the underdog who sticks to his principles. Sort of a physicist's version of 'High Noon.' "
     "Sounds more exciting than it really is."
     "I try to make people feel as they're living it with you. If they can get a sense of the immediacy of the events, they'll be very sympathetic to your story."
     "I don't need the sympathy," said Travis, turning.
     "What are your reasons for talking?"
     Travis lowered his head and walked back to the chair. There was dried soup on the front of his red plaid shirt. After he sat, his breathing was still audible.
     "I'm doing this for me. I have a feeling I'm not long for this world, so I'm putting it on record. My dying confession."
     "Dying, sir?"
     "I'm sure you've heard that I have a degenerative disease by now. It's true. The same one that a former president suffered from. If you ask me, he had it when he was still in office. It's a race to see which gets me first, the disease or a bottle of Nembutal. And don't give me the 'it's not worth it' speech, I may be joking."
     Hilversum was at a loss. The comment, the offhandedness of it, froze him. He examined his pencil closely.
     "It must be very difficult," he said at last.
     "Oh no, it's easy to lie in bed all night, sweating. I won't get into that however. What's next, more about the intrigue in the scientific community during my tenure? More elaboration on that?"
     "I won't go on record with your physical condition, if that's what you'd prefer. That can stay here in this room."
     "That doesn't bother me," Travis said abruptly, "just don't tell them I've been having suicidal thoughts. They're not as uncommon as we think. I suppose you've never been troubled by them."
     "I was, when I was thirteen. It's a trying age for a lot of people."
     "So is sixty-six. I'll give you something to look forward to, how about that?"
     Travis went on about the professional quarrels. Outside, the light diminished. Evening spread from the dark places in the nearby woods. A breeze rushed through the pines, sounding like a forced breath through clenched teeth. Hilversum wrote many notes, partly as insurance against recorder malfunction, but his interest was fueled as well. The story began to write itself, a thing Hilversum rarely experienced. Inside him, his heart leapt.
     As he wrote, he heard, "Here, let me look at your questions."
     Travis extended a knotty hand towards him, gravity in his expression.
     "Why?" he asked defensively.
     "Just curiosity. I want to see how reporters write these things down. And it might help me. If you don't mind, of course."
     "Not at all." Hilversum gave him the legal pad.
     Travis slipped on a pair of black, horn-rimmed bifocals and read down the page. His lips moved faintly. His aspect metamorphosed before Hilversum's eyes. The scholarly pose was there, identical to a famous picture of him in a 1964 issue of Life magazine. Only the black hair was missing. The lines, hinted at then, were deeper, channels dredged by the engines of thought.
     His brows joined as he reached the bottom.
     " 'Pulsars' with a question mark. What does that mean?"
     "A sign of my unpreparedness." Hilversum cleared his throat. "I had meant to look it up before I got here. Obviously, I didn't get to a dictionary in time."
     "You mean we've been discussing the cornerstone of my research and you had no idea what they are? Why didn't you say something? You needn't have worried, I wouldn't let the shock register on my face."
     Travis laughed, the notes of his voice deep and sharp, pounding the air. "How amusing," he repeated to himself.
     "That's something I can take care of after we finish. I won't bother you for a simple definition. I'd like to shed some light on a point you made about the flaw in Kragen's research that took him--"
     "Do you know what we thought they were at first?"
     Travis was leaning forward, hands in a prayer position, the glasses dangling from his thumbs. His eyes seemed lit by an urgent memory.
     "We thought they were beacons. Signposts erected by intergalactic travelers to help map out the galaxies. Lighthouses on the shores of a black, infinite sea guiding lightspeed cruisers toward safety, maybe toward home. You see?! We were certain we had the first pure evidence of a more advanced race of aliens that had charted, or had begun charting, the universe. Later study revealed this to be impossible, but initially we were like children with a secret."
     "I'm not sure if I follow," said Hilversum.
     "Pulsars are bodies of incredibly dense matter, the remnants of a dead star, similar to black holes. Black holes are so dense that their gravity permits nothing to escape its influence, hence their name. Pulsars are not quite as dense. In their case we find a short, regular pulse of energy that escapes the gravitational field. The burst is so regular that, for a short time, we gave credence to the idea of it as a space 'buoy'."
     Travis sat back. He looked at the floor, shiny-eyed, vacant.
     "At that moment, we felt as if we sat at the right hand of God. We had reached across heaven and pulled back a curtain. It's difficult . . . to retain perspective after witnessing something like that."

     Hilversum was caught off guard. He waited for the old man to convulse into laughter, to let him in on the joke. In his mind, these pragmatic young giants did not indulge in belief in aliens. He was drawn to images from fifties' sci-fi B-movies. The feeling of incongruity was overwhelming.
     Maybe it was the disease. Travis' curdling brain confusing his serious work with the UFO paranoia prevalent during his youth.
     "But you found out it was a natural phenomenon?"
     "Yes. The odds say that there has to be someone else out there, very likely more advanced. This wasn't our proof though. Ever do any reports on UFOs, Bob?"
     "No, sir. To be honest, I have trouble accepting the theory of aliens trying to contact us."
     "Why is that?"
     "It just--seems like such a long shot, I guess."
     "Oh, you're absolutely right, it is a long shot. Put together two advanced intellects, however, and the possibility is there. I have friends who've worked for NASA for years, they could tell you stories that would make the hair on your neck stand out. It would have to be off the record. They won't tell me why; if the government is involved, it has to be shrouded in mystery."
     "Have you seen anything?"
     Travis was still, as if he hadn't heard the question. Hilversum was on the brink of rephrasing it.
     "What time is it?" Travis said.
     "Ten after nine. Boy, I didn't realize it was so late."
     "It's a gorgeous evening. Would you mind taking a couple chairs out to the dock and sitting? It's a summer ritual for me."
     "Sounds like a fine idea."

     The lake was smooth as marble, the sunset wind now gone. A crackle overhead. Hilversum looked up at the blue pallid glow of a bug zapper. Lightning bugs shone briefly in the air before him. Into the woods their flares danced, random eyes flashing in crazy paths. Against his will, Hilversum imagined things, remembered childhood demons. He wanted to take a vacation after this assignment.
     Splashes, as fish jumped periodically. Few lights on the opposite shore. It was less developed. Beyond them, the hills rose, a black implacable wall. Night air was thick and sweet here, far from any city, the effect making him sluggish. He moved under water.
     They sat on the narrow dock, Hilversum gazing out over the lake, feeling in miniature, on the edge of a huge table. The dark air embraced him.
     Travis spoke of fishing on this lake as a teenager. His family had a cottage several miles south of here, when Truman was president. It was torn down after his mother died.
     "They didn't know it then, but I think it was Alzheimer's that took her. I know what's coming for me."
The moon was just past new, the shape of a sharp crescent. Above the hills. Hilversum looked down at the other docks, reaching from the shore. A dark figure moved on one of the more distant jetties. Voices floated in from that direction, a party spilling out into the night.
     "I have seen things, Bob. A lot that I can't explain. My job was looking at the sky, I was bound to see something. Most of it was garden variety stuff, like you'd see on the news. There are plenty of hoaxes, but I believe a lot is honestly perplexing."
     "So you've seen strange discs in the sky, flying hubcaps, that sort of thing?"
     "All of it unexplainable. I'm supposed to have the explanations! You've seen the Mars photographs?"
     "The pyramids on Mars. The structure that resembles a huge face, the canals. That planet has ice caps for God's sake, you can't tell me it's always been barren."
     Hilversum feared losing the thread of the interview. This speculation was a sidetrack. He waited for Travis to pause, for an opportunity to redirect the subject.
     "The first time I saw the lights was here, at the old cottage after my parents moved here. Two of them, and they didn't behave like aircraft. They still don't. Look to the south there, just over that peak. You'll see them."
     Hilversum followed the scientist's outstretched arm. To the south he saw the star-rich sky, nothing more. He scanned slowly, top to bottom, left to right. One light moved. It moved in short, rapid bursts of speed. Impossible speed for a distant object. The light it emitted was pink.
     A second light began moving in the same fashion. Between movements the lights would hover for breathless moments. Otherwise they moved at random; sometimes it appeared they collided.
     Hilversum reached out towards them, waving, as if they were bright winged insects in the air before him. His reaction was an odd mixture of disbelief and fear. The sensations threatened to rise up and overwhelm him.
     "I've seen these two every summer of my life since I was eleven, with the exception of 1969. The summer we went to the moon. I don't know what they are. Everybody who lives here has seen them. Got any theories?"
     A thought struck him.
     "This lady in a store mentioned lights. I thought she meant stars. Falling stars."
     "Are you still skeptical?" Travis asked.
     Hilversum had lost sense of time. It felt like hours before they disappeared. First one, then the other. He heard Travis again, sounding distant and vague.
     "I hope I'm still around when they land."


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