by Michael Cocchiarale
‘Blood this, Super Duper that. Anymore, they just make stuff up.’
‘Well, the truth of the matter—’
‘And, of course, all these amazing “celestial events” always happen in the wee hours of the morning, when no one’s up to see them.’
‘You could move to another time zone.’
‘All of it is—what’s the word?’
She watched him jam hands in a jacket not suited for the cold.
‘That’s all I’m going to say.’
‘Bet my paycheck you’ll say more.’
‘It’s a huge conspiracy.’
‘Really? And who are the brains behind—’
She blinked, as if a fist had stopped a hair’s breadth from her nose.
‘Not that one. I’m talking about the libtards. They’re bankrolling the scientists. Why do you think we’ve got to get a jab of poison every goddamn month?’
‘Whitman has this poem.’
‘I said I wasn’t talking about that.’
‘The speaker is in a classroom, listening to this astronomy professor drone on. Finally—fed up—he stands, walks out, and experiences the stars for himself.’
‘I remember others, which were all pretty much man-on-man.’
‘Wait, I thought you weren’t—’
‘In high school, this teacher had to tell us all about it.’
To her right, a family of four took polite turns peeking into a telescope. To her left, an elderly couple shared hot coffee from a thermos. Above—a beautiful, sublime spray of stars. All of this was enough to make her cry, had she been that kind of person anymore.
‘His whole lifestyle was “essential information.”‘
She loafed with the last lines of the poem: the gliding out, the wandering alone, the mystical night air.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Perfect silence,’ she said, the words delicious on her lips.
‘You know, the other day I woke up to this show that said there’s this stuff that sweats right off the planets. And scientists—if you’re fool enough to believe them—can somehow turn it into sounds.’
She nodded, pleasantly surprised. ‘You’re talking about plasma waves.’
Sometimes, plagued by insomnia, she’d play them on her phone at three a.m. in a last-ditch effort to lull herself back to sleep. Eerie, undulating sounds they were. Ghost birds calling. She imagined two together, fat and sweet along a constellation’s twinkling bough.
‘See that?’ His pointed finger seemed to aim at everything. ‘That’s the sky.’
‘Hmm, are you sure?’
He struck the ground with a heel. ‘And this here is the earth. Your either one thing or another. That’s nature.’
She had tried, especially in these last several months. Tried so hard. After the accident—or so it had been ruled—she’d taken a leave and moved back to the area. Singlehandedly cleaned and sold the old colonial. Ordered and paid for the stone. Got his papers and pills in order. On Sunday afternoons, she sat on a folding chair in his grimly lit efficiency while he bitched about his Browns. When feeling ambitious, she took him on short trips—to the arboretum, the lake, the football hall of fame. Any place in Northeast Ohio, as long as it brought him out of Painesville for a while.
But now she was tired of him. Exhausted. The years of pretending. Of biting her tongue. Of dimming the shine on the only self of hers that mattered.
‘Forget climate change. We won’t survive if we can’t make simple distinctions.’
She looked out at the black teeth of tents in the field. ‘There’s this game I play with my students. It’s called What If? As in, “What if you lost the power of speech?” “What if you woke to a world that couldn’t bear the sight of you?’’’
‘If ifs and buts were candy and nuts.’
‘What if, what if hatred and stupidity were crimes pun—’
‘We’d all have a Merry Christmas.’
‘Oh, I—I—.’ She stepped away, toward the family, their laughter cracking the cold. When she turned back, he was rubbing hands with a fury she thought might lead to fire.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘when a star gets really old, it just blows and takes down whatever is there around it.’
‘The fact is, most stars—the little ones, at least—take a long long time to die. They just kind of fade away.’
For a few moments, there was perfect silence, which allowed her to revel again in the glories this park revealed. And yet—the thought shot through her—there was still so much more to the night sky than planets, moons, and stars. So much that could not even be seen. Dark matter: the queer, invisible glue that somehow kept it all from coming apart.
An odd sound—something between grunt and wheeze—brought her eyes back down to earth, where he was kneeling now, stiffly, to tie a boot that had come undone. Like all bodies, this one didn’t stand a chance. She watched its breath coil and disappear. Studied the squat, shaky fingers fumbling at their simple task. Then, above, those two wan strands of hair that stretched in vain over so much empty space.
Michael Cocchiarale is the author of two short story collections—Still Time (Fomite, 2012) and Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018)—as well as the novel None of the Above (Unsolicited, 2019). More recent work may be found online in journals such as Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Sleet Magazine, Unlikely Stories Mark V, The Disappointed Housewife, and Fictive Dream.