Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Short Story: Astronomical Events

Sam Riley acquired the telescope just six weeks shy of his twenty-second wedding anniversary.  It was Jolene’s second marriage and Sam’s third.  When people asked how many children they had, Sam always said, “We have four, two girls and two boys.”  Jo always said, “I have two girls and Sam has two boys.”  Sam didn’t take offense at this.  He was ten years older than his wife.  When they’d gotten married, his boys, David and Brian, were teenagers.  In fact, Dave had already started college at Rolla.  Jo didn’t have a hand in raising them.  Her girls, on the other hand, had still been small: Audrey had been nine and little Jess, only five.  Their dad had been mostly out of the picture, so Sam had stepped in.  He’d been glad to do it, bandaging up boo-boos, attending parent-teacher nights, cheering them on at softball games and even washing their hair in the kitchen sink nights because he didn’t think it was proper for him to see them naked in the tub. 
Now the kids were all grown and gone, and in Sam’s estimation, they were all in fine shape.  He loved to tell people, “Not a bum in the lot.”  And it was true.  They’d all gone to college except for Jess, who was happy as a clam doing her business from home, selling her handmade knickknacks on the Internet and making a tidy living at it. 
But it was Dave who brought him the telescope.  Dave was the only one who had stayed close to home.  He taught at the junior high where he was real popular with the kids.  Besides teaching science, he coached basketball and track and ran several academic clubs. 
The old junior high building had been built in the 1920s.  A new wing had been added sometime in the 60s, but it still lacked air conditioning.  The furnace was notoriously temperamental, too.  Many times over the course of the winter, it would conk out entirely.  When it did, teachers resignedly informed their charges to go to their lockers and get their coats before resuming the lesson. 
Since Dave had started teaching there, extensive renovations had begun.  The principal was a man named Greg Meier, who Sam remembered seeing often hanging around the house when the boys had been growing up, slurping RC Colas and playing video games on the old Commodore 64.  Now, Greg was overseeing a clean-up project at the school, starting with the storage spaces.  There was a large attic in the old wing that nobody’d hardly been in since Ford was in office.   
That’s where they’d found it, fully assembled under a drop cloth: an orange-bodied Celestron with an 8” lens. 
When Sam was a boy, his great-grandma, who everybody called Sweetie Pie, used to joke it was a good thing he was the spittin’ image of his daddy, otherwise people might think he’d been left on the doorstep by Gypsies; he was such a natural tinker.  Even as a boy, he’d been a patient, meticulous sort, intrigued with the inner workings of things.  His prized possessions in those days had been the collection of tools and spare parts he’d scavenged from old sheds and trash heaps.  His room had been a magpie nest of nuts and bolts, shoeboxes overflowing with bits of wire, erector sets, airplane models and old vacuum tubes.  He kept Sweetie Pie’s ancient (even in those distant chrome-and-frosted-aqua days of 1959) floor model Victrola running.  At fourteen, he built his own ham radio.  At eighteen, he’d joined the army and served in the Signal Corps.  He did a tour in Viet Nam, then went to college on the GI Bill to study electrical engineering.  After ten years in broadcasting, he went to work for an electronics company where he stayed for twenty-seven years.  During his first two marriages, he’d held a part-time job as a repairman at an appliance store.  Long after he quit, people in town continued to bring him things that wanted fixing: telephones, radios, clocks, cameras, watches, televisions, computers, which he happily did at no charge.  He made house calls to work on major appliances or to hook up someone’s surround sound system.  When he’d retired, several people, including Dave, had suggested he teach technical courses, or even go into consulting.  Sam always shook his head and said, “I just wouldn’t have the patience for that kind of thing.”  But the truth was, at sixty-four years, Sam couldn’t credit the idea of starting over.  Besides, he liked puttering around his own shop, dozing in front of Bonanza reruns and playing with the grandkids. 

The day Dave brought the telescope over, Jess was visiting her mother in the kitchen.  When Dave came in, they ignored him and he ignored them.  The relationship between Jo, her daughters and Sam’s sons had always been a bit frosty for Sam’s liking.  For the life of him, he didn’t understand why the five of them didn’t get along better.  It seemed that things had only gotten worse in recent years.  Sam suspected it had something to do with Jo and the girls not caring much for Dave’s wife, Shannon, who, admittedly, thought a lot of herself.  Then there was the fact that Dave and Shannon had started attending the mega-church some years ago and had tried to convince the rest of the family to do likewise.  The place packed in almost four thousand people on the weekends, which, in Sam’s opinion, seemed more like a stadium event than a house of worship, but to each his own.  He was just grateful everybody kept relations civil, especially on the holidays.    
As for him and Jo—well.  In some ways, they were very compatible.  They were both hard-working, both loners.  They were both thrifty and liked a tidy house.  But Jo had always been an unhappy woman.  She’d met her ex, an Air Force man, when he was stationed in Wichita.  She’d married him to get away from Middle of Nowhere, Kansas, (a map might list it as “Walton”—which was the closest town, at any rate), where she’d grown up.  Her mom had been a real good-time gal, dumping her off in the country like a dog for her grandparents to raise.  As a result, Jo hated the country, hated everything to do with the country.  She wouldn’t even go camping.  Sam had inherited his grandfather’s old farm about ten miles northeast of town and had once nursed dreams of building a house out there in his retirement.  But of course, Jo wouldn’t even consider it. 
In school, young Jo-Jo had gotten good grades, but had never had the money to go to college, something she’d always regretted.  Audrey had remarked a few times that there wasn’t anything preventing her from taking classes now, but for some reason, Jo never did it.  The community college brochures Audrey brought over sat untouched on the kitchen counter until Sam threw them away.  Jo didn’t really have any hobbies to speak of either.  She gardened some—if you could call keeping some African violets on the window sill, popping petunias out of a plastic container and dropping them into a terra cotta urn in the springtime ‘gardening.’  Jo had said one time that she might like to learn to knit, so on her birthday, the girls presented her with a course they’d paid for—just a little four-week thing offered up at the community center.  Jo went to one session, but said it was too hard on account of her being left-handed.  She was a fine cook and would have spent more time in the kitchen trying out exotic recipes, but Sam, a diehard meat-and-potato man, didn’t have the palate for anything more refined than Heinz 57. 
Jo had always complained about how they never did anything fun.  But if Sam suggested they go see a movie, she sniffed and said there wasn’t anything worth paying ten dollars to see.  If he suggested they go out for an ice cream cone, she got all huffy and said no, that he just didn’t understand.  She wanted to go out and do something.  How come they never traveled?  “Well, now,” he’d said.  “Traveling is a big expense.  We’ll have to do our research.”
And research Sam had.  That was the way he did everything.  Purchasing a new pair of shoes took him a few weeks.  A ladder had taken him six months.  A new car, a year.  He had to try things out, investigate all the options.  The way he looked at it, every purchase was an investment.  A vacation was no different, really.  There was the matter of airfare, lodging, rental car.  Their food and entertainment budget would have to be planned. 
“Where do you want to go?” Jo had asked.
“Where?” he’d frowned.  “Well, how about . . . Galveston?”
“You know damn well I hate Texas.”
“Galveston’s not at all like Fort Worth.  And anyhow, I don’t think it’s fair for you to say you hate a place you haven’t been to in over thirty years.”
“How about Vegas?”
“What would we do in Vegas?”
“Go to the casinos, see the shows, go dancing--”
“The casinos?  Why not just throw all our money away and cut out the middle man?”
They’d argued for days about where to go before finally settling on checking out the cruise lines.  That was over a year ago, and Sam still insisted he was comparing deals. 
In the meantime, he understood that Jo needed something in her life.  When the girls were at home, none of this had been a problem.  In those days, there was no such thing as free time.  Even as the girls got older, it seemed there was always something going on—back-to-school shopping, math homework, doctor’s appointments.  Both Sam and Jo worked full-time.  They had their commutes; they had a house and vehicles to maintain, coupons to clip, casseroles to make, check books to balance.  Twice, Jo had to go through lengthy and acrimonious child support proceedings.  Sometimes, it had felt like they barely had time to speak two words to each other before collapsing into bed at night. 
Now, the bills were all automated and there was no need to cook every day, or even every other day.  In fact, several times a week they ordered dinner off the senior menu at Perkin’s, pot roast for him, Cobb salad for her.  The house and yard were always immaculate.  And yet, they still barely spoke two words to each other, unless it was to snap.  Just the other day, Sam had gone into the kitchen to let her know he was going to the hardware store. 
She’d had her back to him, bent over the sink washing the breakfast dishes.  Just as he leaned over to give her a kiss good-bye, she said, “So, go.  No one’s stopping you.”

He’d hoped grandchildren would help, but Jo didn’t regard his grandchildren as hers.  In fact, she seemed to resent the amount of time he spent with them.  Nine times out of ten, Jo found some reason not to go to their baseball games and ballet recitals.  She’d hinted once that Blake and Taylor were spoiled.  That had led to such a nasty exchange, Sam stopped asking her to accompany him altogether. 
But if she disapproved of his spending time with the grandkids, she hated that he fixed stuff for free, and made no bones about it. 

So when Dave brought over the telescope, they snuck it in through the garage. 
Sam’s shop was a far cry from his cluttered childhood bedroom.  He had two main work areas in the house’s sub-basement, one for woodworking and one for electronics.  The electronics area had a wide bench with a heavy-duty magnifier lamp.  Shelves and peg boards lined the walls.  All his tools, equipment, spare parts and hardware were sorted and labeled. 
As Sam flipped on the lights, Dave was saying, “Greg called and asked me if the science faculty might have any use for it.  I told him, ‘Oh, heck, yeah.  I’d love to do an astronomy unit.  And the science club would just love it.’”
Sam grunted.  “Well, let’s have a gander.” 
Dave and Greg had managed to dig up the telescope’s original carrying case, dusty, slightly scuffed, but none the worse for wear.  Sam popped it open to reveal the telescope nestled within, the body unscrewed from the tripod, all the individual pieces matched up to their foam rubber compartments. 
“I took it home and cleaned it,” Dave said.  “Blake and I took it out last night, but we couldn’t get it to focus.”
Sam examined the parts one by one, laid them neatly out on his workbench: tripod, finderscope, sun shade, altitude adjustment.  He saved the body of the telescope itself for last, turning it thoughtfully over in his hands.
“Think you can fix it?”
“Sure.  For a fee.”
Dave laughed a trifle disbelievingly.  “Fee?”
Sam nodded, tapping a finger against the orange tube.  “If I fix it, I get to keep it for a few weeks.” 
“Is that all?” Still laughing, Dave clasped his father’s shoulder.  “Sure, that seems fair to me.”
Dave stayed and visited for a little while, but declined Sam’s offer to stay for supper.  As soon as Dave left, Sam got to work. 

Generally, Jo didn’t come down to the basement.  If she wanted something, there was a return vent in the kitchen floor she could holler through.  So she didn’t even know about the telescope until a replacement part arrived a week later.
“What’s this?” Jo asked when she found the small, flat parcel in their mailbox.
“That must be the lens I ordered,” Sam replied.
“For what?”
“Telescope?  What telescope?”
“They found it up at the school.  Asked me to take a look.” 
“Doing it for free?”
“Well, there wasn’t hardly anything to it.  The screws that held the focuser in place came off, so the mechanism fell down into the shaft.  All I had to do was get it out.  Took me all of five minutes.”
“But you ordered a lens.”
“Old one was scratched.”
“How much did that cost us?”
“Thirty-one ninety-five.  I found it on eBay.”
“Are they going to compensate us for that?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What does that mean?”
“I told Dave I wouldn’t charge if I could borrow it for a while.”  As soon as Sam finished that sentence, he braced himself for the haranguing that was sure to follow. 
To his surprise, Jo didn’t say anything for a few moments.  Then she said, “Can I see it?”
Then it was his turn to pause.  “Sure.  Come on down.”
She went with him to the shop and watched as he opened the package and screwed in the new lens.  “There,” he pantomimed dusting his hands off.  “That’s that.”
Jo bent to look into the eyepiece.  She moved the telescope around, adjusted the focus.  “You know, my grandpa got me a telescope when I was ten or eleven.  We used to go up on the roof and look at the constellations.”
“Did he?” Sam tried to recall if she’d ever told him that before.  He didn’t think so.  “Well, I figured we’d take it out tonight.  You know.  Give it a spin.”
“What’s the moon phase tonight?”
“Waning crescent.  It’ll be a new moon in a few nights.  Then we’ll really be able to see some things.”
“Did you look that up?”
He nodded.  “I been checking out some astronomy sites.  You want to see?”
The two of them sat down in front of his computer, where they remained for the better part of the afternoon.  Just before dusk, Jo fixed them up some sandwiches while Sam took the telescope out to the backyard.  He set out a pair of aluminum folding chairs next to it, lit some citronella candles to keep the bloodsuckers off.
Jo brought the plates outside and they settled down together, sipping iced tea and watching the sky darken.  The cicadas gave way to lightning bugs.  The lightning bugs gave way to crickets.  When Sam and Jo finished eating, they wiped the potato chip grease off their hands and stood up. 
Sam started to take the eyepiece, then paused and offered it to Jo. 
She shook her head.  “After you.  You fixed it.”
So Sam put his eye to the lens.  After some adjusting, he beheld the moon. 
They’d mostly stuck to the beginner astronomy websites, and it had felt kind of elementary to be reading about Orion’s Belt and Cassiopeia—who didn’t know about them?  But seeing them like this made him glad they did.  Why had they ever taken the moon for granted?  Then there were the Pleiades.  There was Perseus.  Jupiter with its tan girdle and its red spot.  Its four moons, Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede.  There were nebulae and galaxies.  And of course, all the bright stars, alone or in clusters. 
Sam and Jo passed the eyepiece back and forth, rotating the telescope in slow circles so they could see all that they could see. 
“I found a list of astronomical events the other day,” Sam said.  “We’ll get to see a meteor shower in October.”
“Won’t the telescope have to go back by then?”
“I was thinking we might get one of our own.”
She nodded.  “I think that’s a good idea.”
“I was also thinking we could visit some of the observatories.  There’s one up at William Jewell.  UMKC, too.”
“And Louisburg.”
“We could visit all of them.”
“We could.”
They didn’t even realize how quickly time was passing, the fairy circle of candles turning into puddles of wax around them, a foraging possum trundling its way across the yard to sniff at their discarded Lay’s bag. 
  It was after 2 a.m. when they finally decided to turn in.  Sam broke down the telescope while Jo gathered up their plates and crumpled-up napkins.  As they walked together back towards the house, Jo said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to go to Cape Canaveral.  That’d be a nice anniversary gift to ourselves, wouldn’t it?”
He smiled.  “I hear Florida’s nice this time of year.”

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