Leslie Doyle

Backyard Astronomer

last week, liam ran his thumb down the right side of her head, looking for the bulge in her skull— “remodeled” according to the radiologist report. But he found nothing; the changes, they tell Annie, are all on the inside.

Lately, when Annie first wakes up, she tries to imagine what really exists in the empty space in her head. Cerebral fluid, they have told her, the same stuff that bathes her brain to cushion it from injury. Cerebral fluid—smart liquid? No. Head juice, the stuff that flows up and down her spine, and sloshes carefully (mindfully, she wants to say) around her brain, filling up this space. Actually, creating the space, pushing her brain one way, her skull another. She wonders—what stray thoughts, ideas, memories might be floating in that barren sea that takes up a quarter of her cranium—what might be getting lost in there? She imagines driftwood, flotsam, seaweed mats. A compass, pointing true north.

This is what Annie is thinking about, waiting for Liam to get back from his run, the night she sees the comet. She sits cross-legged, tucked into herself, at the kitchen table, an old tabletop Liam has found in the basement, repainted and nailed onto a couple sawhorses. She pores over the newspaper, the lingering cough from the cold she can’t shake rattling her thoughts so that they bounce back to the empty space.

The cough, annoying as it is, has nothing to do with the hole in Annie’s head.

The hole in her head has nothing to do with anything, according to both the neurologist and the neurosurgeon who looked at the pictures back when she still had insurance. It’s one of those things that she might never have known about if she hadn’t started seeing double. She tries to concentrate on the want ads. Maybe Liam can get her on at Wal-Mart, is what she decides to think about.

The first time it happened, she was going down the road staring at the car ahead of her, a late model SUV someone was driving five miles below the speed limit because even if the gas prices are down again, you never know, you know? She was late for her job at the local Shop Rite where, until recently, she was a “personal shopper,” one of those women dressed in black pants and turtleneck with the red and yellow Shop Rite emblem on her chest like a medal, who takes the lists people with no time to shop call in, and does their shopping for them.

She was concentrating hard on that SUV, willing it to speed up. Not anything dangerous, just maybe approach the speed limit when, without warning, there were two SUVs in front of her, one floating over the other. She pulled over, and in a few minutes everything snapped back into focus. Things became just one of each thing, and she started back up and got to work, where her lateness was duly marked.

It happened again two weeks later, this time when she was at the egg case, checking a carton of brown speckled free-range eggs for breaks, when suddenly there were two dozen eggs. She looked at the rim of the shelf. It had split into two. She looked down, and the floor was floating above itself. She reached to put the eggs down, missed the shelf, and dropped them. Puddles of yellow and clear liquid oozed across the floor amid broken shells.

The day of the MRI began with a summer morning thunderstorm, the worst kind. The radio blared warnings of flooded highways and downed wires everywhere between them and the Imaging Center. Liam said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you there.” And he did.

Annie picked the place that promised an “open MRI” because of her claustrophobia. She swore when she slid into the tube that if this was open, she didn’t think she could ever make it through the regular kind-all that noise in her head, banging and sawing through her brain, along with the view of the wall and the window where the technician sat. She told the technician afterward, said she couldn’t imagine how bad “closed” would be. He looked at her, puzzled. “That was closed,” he said, “your neurologist always insists on that.”

The hole is in the front of her brain, on the right side. It’s the size of her fist. An “arachnoid” cyst, a big sac of fluid bulging in the spider-like membrane that seals one’s brain shut, and in this case, squeezes her brain away from one corner of her skull. There is no identifiable reason for it, and, the neurologist tells her, there are no risks. She might have been born with it. It might have occurred after a knock on the head sometime in the past. The rest of her brain can handle what isn’t there. It has nothing to do with her vision problems, they assure her.

Nor did the “remodeling.” Annie and Liam laughed when they read this word.

“Shit,” Liam says. “We can’t get the landlord to fix up the damn house, but your brain’s working overtime.”

Their house is falling down around them. The living room has the same burnt orange wall-to-wall carpet it had years before they moved in, bare patches where the yarn has worn away; the bathroom tiles are held together by clear contact paper. Where the paper gets loose, mold collects until they tear it off and reapply new stuff. She thinks about plaster crumbling, walls torn down, and the word seems less funny.

Remodeling. In her brain. Her skull is thin and misshapen over the empty spot. Not so you’d notice. At least, she never had. Liam says he hasn’t either, though he checked that one time, his thumbprint warm on her skin. This morning, Annie stared at the mirror, pushing her hair aside, but she saw nothing wrong. Then saw the nothing twice.

She didn’t tell Liam. He’s worried about enough already.

The neurologist says not to worry, and the neurosurgeon concurs. It’s probably “congenital.” She could have gone forever without knowing about it. “It has nothing to do with your double vision,” they keep repeating. They still don’t know why that happened. She’s stopped doing more tests, since she lost her job.

It wasn’t the lateness, her manager at Shop Rite told her. Or the broken eggs. “It’s the economy. No one can afford a personal shopper anymore. We like you, but.” He spread his hands in the “can’t help it” position.

Lately, Annie has been more pre-occupied with the lousy cold she’s had for the last week. After being up all night coughing, she bought some generic Nyquil from Walgreen’s. Wal-quil, they call it. It knocks her out cold. Liam says she still coughs, but she’s sleeping through it. He doesn’t tell her it keeps him up, until she asks him. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’m glad you’re sleeping better.” And he means it.

She offered him the Wal-quil so he could sleep, but he doesn’t like to take drugs he doesn’t need. It messes up his routine. Liam is on a quest. Lose about a hundred pounds. Maybe more. Pass the police test. Police get good insurance, so Annie can keep monitoring the hole in her head. But he can’t pass the physical. He’s on South Beach. He’s given up beer. He’s working out. His friend Lou’s got a Bowflex, and he’s over there every night after his shift at Wal-Mart.

The problem is monitoring; he weighs too much for a home scale. So he’s come up with this deal. He’s started making a few extra bucks selling scrap metal. Some guys steal pipes or copper wiring by crawling under weekenders’ empty houses, or breaking into sheds and garages. Or from construction sites, suspended mid-job and unguarded. Foreclosures make easy targets.

Liam makes it clear to Anne that he doesn’t steal. His scrap is legit. He gets it from demolition sites that sell it cheap, or he pulls it out of dumpsters. Even drives down roads full of potholes that strip exhaust pipes and mufflers out of passing cars, and he stops and picks it all up. Last night he came home late, hauling a truck-full.

The price is not the point. He brings what he finds to the scrap yard where they weigh it and pay him. Each time he goes in, he uses the industrial scale to weigh himself. The scrap yard guys have figured out his routine. They’d probably let him use the scale empty-handed, but Liam has to have at least a nominal piece of metal in his hand when he shows up.

Tonight, Liam gets home from his workout at Lou’s and goes for a run. Annie thinks about joining him, but she’s still feeling under the weather. It exhausts her just thinking about Liam’s schedule. She’s spent the day coughing and filling out online applications. She walks out with him to get some fresh air. His pickup’s engine still ticks. A blue tarp covers most of the heaped contents of the truck bed, but a few jagged pieces of metal protrude at the edges.

She nods toward the pile.

“Good haul last night.” Liam looks up from his stretching.

“You bet. We’re on our way. Things are starting to look up.” He bends down to kiss her; Annie turns her cheek toward him. He shrugs.

“Annie, if I get your cold, I get it. What’s yours is mine; what’s mine is yours, right, baby?”

While Liam runs, she turns from the want ads, and the “Backyard Astronomer” column catches her eye. A comet will be visible late tonight, if the sky is clear. It’s heading away from the sun, having swung around it like a car on the Whip, that old street fair ride that Annie hasn’t been on since she was a kid. She imagines the ball of ice and dust, sailing past the planets, then sucked into the Sun’s gravity, not enough to be annihilated by its heat, just enough to heat up the ice into a flaming tail, flung headlong back to the outer reaches of the solar system, lighting a faint trail past Earth on its way. This one, for some unknown reason, has lit up suddenly, explosively, as it moved through the Perseus constellation.

Annie used to think that comets were something you read about. You didn’t really see them. Every few years, there’d be a media blitz about a new one recently found, and inevitably, it would be a disappointment. So a few years ago, when Annie heard about Hale-Bopp, she just filed it away. She and Liam were practically kids then, living in a tiny apartment over a cigar store, the kind that still displays an anachronistic wooden Indian by the front door.

One night in late spring, when Annie was waiting for Liam to pick up dinner on his way home from work, she heard him calling as he came through the door at the bottom of the stairs.

“Annie, quick, you gotta see this!”

Outside, she found Liam standing on the sidewalk, and there it was—a comet, hanging in the late sunset sky, looking like the illustrations she’d seen in her “How and Why” books as a child—the head a bright point, the tail curling away from it, floating like a badge pinned to the chest of the sky.

Liam was standing and smiling. He was big even back then. He loomed over Annie. They stood in a row, the three of them all still—Liam, Annie, the wooden statue. The comet was a miracle to Annie, a reassurance that pledged realities could be fulfilled. Hale-Bopp became her companion. Each evening, she looked out over the western sky, and there it was, until it wasn’t.

She knew it had to happen eventually, that comets make their mad swing around the sun, and then fade into the outer spaces of the solar system again, orbiting out there somewhere past Pluto. They get brighter, then they get dim again. Nevertheless, she felt the loss for months.

The next year, after they moved to the rental house, Liam and Annie dug a fish pond in the backyard and drove to the garden center to buy koi. They walked among the ponds, gazed at the beautiful wide-mouthed, many-colored fish churning to be fed. Then they found a tub of small, diffident goldfish, labeled “comets,” which fit their budget. They brought three home. Annie named two of them Hale and Bopp, and the other one, that was always impossible to find, Kohoutek. The three of them grew and grew, and produced young crops of tiny comets. Each winter, the pond iced over, and each spring, it was a surprise to see how many had survived, slowly breathing the oxygen trapped under the ice all winter long.

Tonight’s comet is supposed to be the brightest since Hale-Bopp. Comet Holmes, it’s called. The article says it’s heated up, suddenly become so big you can spot it with the naked eye. Maybe she should look for the binoculars, just in case. She makes a cup of tea and thinks about getting to the dishes. Whatever energy she had earlier is draining away, and when she finishes her tea, she lies down on the sofa, a little ticked at Liam for being gone so long.

When she awakes, something is banging in her head, rapping against the thinnest part of her skull, the empty spaces sloshing with ripples of memory. The knocking does not diminish; someone, she realizes, is at her door, banging and banging with a ferocity that will not go away.

She pulls an old FDNY sweatshirt of Liam’s over her head, clutching its swathes of material around her as she walks to the door. The shirt falls nearly to her knees—Annie has always been a slight person, the two of them almost a punch line in their disparities.

Liam is standing at the door, the sweat on his face glinting under the yellow porch light. He’s breathing heavily, but not wheezing in that dangerous way he used to when he first started the program. It strikes her that he really has lost a lot of weight; he can’t need to be using the industrial scale anymore.

“Sorry, Annie. I forgot my keys.” She nods, her head fuzzy from sleep and cough syrup.

He walks by her into the house, heading to the sink for a glass of water. “As soon as I get washed up, I’m gonna take this load to get weighed and go for more.”

Annie follows him in. “Do you really need to?”

“Baby, I don’t know if I’ll ever pass the paper test. This gig, at least I can count on bringing something in every night. It’s steady money.” She looks out the window over the sink, toward the truck out front.

“You find more at night, huh.”

“I do. That’s when people throw stuff out.”

She looks away, then down. The newspaper is still open to the astronomy column. She sweeps it off the kitchen table and goes back outside.

“Want to see something?”

Liam puts down his water and follows her.

“Sure, Annie.” She’s still looking down at the paper, up at the sky, then down at the paper again.

Perseus,” she mutters. “Where would he be?”

It’s a clear night. She can find the Big Dipper and Orion, but that’s it. It’s cold out, and Liam stands beside her, shivering a little as his sweat dries. She stares at the star map torn from the paper, unable to connect something there to anything she can see. The sky above her feels ready to crash down in heaps of heavy dust. She closes her eyes.

“There.” Liam’s hand is on her arm. “Look. That’s it, right—what you’re looking for?”

Liam is good at finding things. Pulling his sweatshirt around her, Annie looks in the direction he is pointing. The paper was right. They don’t even need the binoculars. There it is. Not at all the classic arched comet of Hale Bopp, but a fuzzy blur, a ball of light like spilled flour with a bright solid stone in the center. This comet, she realizes, is pointing toward them. They are looking straight into its perfectly formed head, the tail streaming away from the sun. Eyes wide open now, she keeps watching, fixed on its scatter of light, the hard knot in the center.

Long after Liam has gone back inside, and she has heard the shower running and then the truck starting up, Annie remains standing outside in the backyard, despite the cold, watching. Though she knows better, she feels the comet heading straight at her. She waits for it to hit, waits standing still as wood.

Leslie Doyle works as a counselor in an academic support program at Bloomfield College, in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where she has also taught as an adjunct professor in composition and literature for many years. She lives in Bloomfield with her husband Michael and the younger of her two children. She has previously published a story in Clapboard House, and is presently revising a novel set in the New Jersey Meadowlands.

“The porch on our house, like the hundred-year-old house itself, has seen better days. It needs a paint job, the stairs are rickety, and the corners are piled with dried needles from the pine tree that fills the tiny front yard. The floor is more stable since my husband rebuilt it, and the park bench by the door is a good place to sit with a glass of wine and share the day’s stories with neighbors passing by. Sitting on the front stoop is a time-honored tradition in Bloomfield. Our houses, and thus our porches, are close together, separated by a driveway or a thin line of bushes. We can hear each other’s music, smell each other’s dinner cooking, and listen to each others’ troubles. At least for now, the social network on our block is built of wood, brick, stone, and voices.”


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