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Jul/Aug 2004 spotlight

Back When the Universe Began

by Joan Shaddox Isom


Some tabloid had dubbed Mr. Constable "The Wizard Who Won't Come Down From His Tower." People driving on the ramps circling his property were often startled to see the pale blue Victorian house seemingly afloat in the darkness midway between the lowest and highest levels of the traffic system. And if they looked carefully, they might see a bearded, white-haired man sitting at his desk, his head bent over a lighted globe of the world.

Wilbur Odus Osburn, security man for the property, had his own speculations as to why old man Constable studied the globe each night. He was marking all the countries he had investments in. Filthy rich, was what Odus told friends. "He doesn't have an inkling what he's worth," Odus was fond of saying. "Numbers don't go that high."

The first round began promptly at 8:30 in the evening, the second at midnight, and the third at 3:00 in the morning. Odus liked the last one best. That was when the traffic thinned, and if he listened carefully, between cars, he might hear the frogs trilling from some tiny bog, some wet spot, he couldn't say just where, somewhere out there in the maze of ramps and loops. Viewed from one of those loops, Mr. Constable's island looked like a space station, or maybe a tiny planet floating serenely, lit by green and white lights, mysterious. Odus's own small bungalow, twenty feet from the big house, was overshadowed, seldom noticed.

He knew that his wife Adell was waiting for the lights to flick on. There was always a moment of actual darkness before the timer activated itself, turning the three-acre plot into an island awash in shrubbery lights, spotlights and security lights. Mr. Constable had overdone a good thing. With the sound of traffic swirling around and above the two houses, it was impossible for Odus and Adell to talk above the noise, and they had learned quickly to use signals and mouth words, a system that had sufficed for the two years since Odus had taken the job. After forty years of marriage, there was little to say to each other anyway. This evening, before the first round, they drank lemonade in silence, watching the tree shadows move on the well-cut grass.

It had taken Odus only a couple of weeks to figure out that Quinton Constable watched him as he made his rounds, all his rounds, not just the 8:30 one. At midnight, he would catch a glimpse of the old man on the second floor veranda, silhouetted against the lights in Central Mall. That hadn't surprised Odus, but when he'd seen a glimmer from a small flashlight on the landing leading to the third floor (this during the 3:00 a.m. round), he was puzzled. Why would his employer stay up to check on him? He'd never given the man reason to doubt him.

He hadn't told Adell. He had given it some thought and decided just to keep it between him and his employer, and after a while, Mr. Constable's punctual presence made the rounds seem almost like a kind of conspiracy between the two of them. If the old man was away on business (which seldom happened) or was ill, Odus didn't feel right. Something was missing. Too, certain unspoken rules had somehow been established. Odus never waved to Constable during the midnight and 3:00 a.m. rounds; only during the 8:30 circle did he signal that he'd seen his employer.

Adell pointed at the lemonade pitcher. Odus drained his glass and shook his head. He was enjoying the dark, trying to imagine how it was in the past when the acreage was isolated from the traffic, with only a country road leading to it. Strange how he'd ended up working for Constable. He hadn't planned to work after he retired from the paper plant in Scanlon, Oklahoma, but his old classmate had called from Dallas with an offer he couldn't refuse: free rent on a two-bedroom house that had been built as a servants' quarters. All Odus had to do was make three rounds a night, walking the boundaries of the property, looking for anything suspicious, carrying a large flashlight he didn't need, making sure the property and Mr. Constable's house were secure.

A few of their friends used to drop in occasionally, but that was before the Mixmaster took over their lives. The complex traffic system channeled the traffic where it was supposed to go, Odus admitted, but now when someone wanted to visit, they had to carefully plot the directions, and quite often the would-be company gave up and went back home. There was only one entry to the property, and if you missed it on the first try, you went miles out of your way. Plus, you couldn't enter from the west, and even if you were coming from that direction, you had to go clear downtown and double back in a complicated maneuver that most people found too much trouble.

They didn't need a car. Tyrone, Constable's chauffeur, would drive them to get groceries, or to the doctor when Adell's blood pressure needed checking. Odus had his magazines and newspapers, and Adell had her crochet work. Someday his boss would not be able to hold the city back, and the bulldozers would come grinding after them, toppling the big house and his own house along with it. He would be sorry. But it would happen.

Just as Odus set his glass down, the lights clicked on. He and Adell looked up and sighed, tension ebbing out of their bodies, tension that had built up from waiting. Although he preferred the dark, Odus always relaxed when the property was lit. Soon he would go into the house, get his flashlight, and start the first of his three rounds.

Adell got up and signaled that she was going inside. He followed, bringing the pitcher. "Are you ready?" she asked. They could hear each other inside the house when the closed door shut out the sound of traffic, but the habit to read each other without speaking was strong, and lately it seemed to Odus that they hardly needed to talk to each other at all.

He took his flashlight out of a drawer in the kitchen. "Well, see you in about fifteen minutes," she told him. He nodded, going out the front door. Fifteen minutes would give him time to circle the property, stop at Constable's back door, signal thumbs up, and get back to his own living room. In the five years he'd worked for the man, he'd never been invited into the big house. But he knew the interior fairly well, for his boss never closed his shades, something Odus found strange, considering how careful Constable was about his privacy.

Sometimes Odus would water shrubs outside the library window and watch Constable's face, luminous in the light from the globe, his hair and beard wild and unkept. Often, Constable stared at the globe so long that Odus grew tired and walked away, but sometimes he stayed long enough to see the housekeeper, the chauffeur's wife, bring in a glass on a silver tray. She would place it on the table and say something to her employer, and he would nod and dismiss her with a wave of his hand. That was the signal for Odus to duck behind the shrubbery, for Constable would turn out all the lights except the globe and stand at the window drinking his Scotch (Tyrone had said it was Scotch, and Tyrone would know, for he and his wife bought the old man's groceries). It was the same every night. He would turn his head from side to side, surveying his property, finally raising his glass to something, Odus didn't know what, then leave the room to climb to the third floor, where a light in the south bedroom would appear, winking out in three minutes.

But one thing was certain: Constable would be on the veranda at l2:05 sharp, and on the landing at 3:07 a.m., watching. Odus knew that Mrs. Constable had died ten or fifteen years ago. He couldn't help thinking of his employer as old, although they were both the same age. "Quinton Constable will be big," people had always said, since first grade when he figured out a scheme to make money by setting up a football pool and charging his classmates to enter it. Never mind that he had no friends and didn't know a football from a baseball. And even though no one would date him in high school, he still married a pretty girl from Lupine, Texas, and a rich one at that.

Odus, never having the opportunity to attend college, had married Adell, who had only ten dollars and a beat up suitcase full of hand-embroidered tea towels when he'd married her. He liked to think of himself as self-educated. During his spare time, and there was much of it, he read. As he walked his rounds, it was his habit to recall articles he'd pored over. Tonight a long piece from U.S. News was on his mind. It was all about when the universe was forming, and he'd tried to explain it to Adel. "See," he had told her, "with this new powerful telescope, scientists can look back and see our universe actually being created. It's as if what happened in the past is still happening now."

Adell had closed her eyes and leaned back, the way she did when she was thinking. Adell had countered his idea with her usual practicality. "If that's true, then why doesn't the universe get filled up, if everything keeps happening over and over, and new things are added?" she asked. Odus knew she meant "events" when she said "things," a word she used for everything from bread and butter pickles to space shots. But she was a good woman, and she never asked for vacations or expensive appliances like coffee makers that politely stopped dripping when you wanted a cup of coffee in a hurry. She knew those things were out of reach, despite the decent wage they were paid.

Eight-thirteen p.m., and Mr. Constable was standing at his back door as he always did, looking at Odus, waiting for the thumbs up sign. "Everything's okay, Mr. C.," Odus called. He couldn't bring to think of his employer as Quinton, although they had been through school together from first grade to twelfth. Back then they had both worn jeans and plaid shirts, same kind of tennis shoes, carried sack lunches to school, did the same homework, everyone starting out even, Odus thought. But something happened after high school, of course. Constable had gone away to college, some university in the East, and came back a businessman with a head for making money. Word was that his grandmother gave him a little money to speculate with, and the boy had tripled the seed money and gone on to speculate and invest until he was a millionaire, several times over. And all those years, Odus had been busy working at the paper plant, making enough to get by on, but no luxuries, of course, finally retiring and ending up as a watchman for Constable, who wasn't about to sell his house, once a showplace, to make room for any complicated traffic systems.

"Your boss is touched," the sacker at the supermarket told Odus once when he was loading groceries into the car. Tyrone, the chauffeur, had grinned at Odus as if they had a secret.

"The old man's reputation has spread all over," he'd said. And Odus knew Tyrone was right. The public loved an eccentric multi-millionaire who kept the gossips whetting their beaks for more.

Odus was back on his front porch. In a moment, he would go into the living room, where he would read until the midnight round. Adell would be in bed by ten. She never worried about him. Prowlers couldn't make it through the Mixmaster, he'd convinced her.

By midnight, a breeze had sprung up, and clouds hid the moon, but Odus could still see the figure that stood on the second floor veranda and watched until he had circled the property. He slipped into bed next to Adell. He needed to wake up by 2:55 a.m. when he would rise to make his last round. After the first two weeks on the job, he had never had to set an alarm clock; his body had long since adjusted itself to the nightly rhythm. Some nights he couldn't sleep. This was such a night, but it was no catastrophe. He was not one to fret and toss and turn all night and gripe the next day because he hadn't slept. He would just get up quietly and go downstairs and read until it was time for his next round. This night he pulled out the magazine that had the universe article in it and began to read it again. He never threw favorite articles away, but marked them with stick-on notes. His note for this issue read, "Cinnamon Roll." He had been intrigued by the image of the universe as a huge roll and the planets, suns, and stars as raisins, all moving away from each other as the roll rose in the pan. He dozed a little, waking to read some more, checking his watch occasionally.

"With the new telescope, scientists expect to be able to see clear back to the dawn of time, when the universe was new," he read. He closed the magazine and leaned back. He was no scientist, but he could imagine how it was: clouds of gas, colors intermingling, galaxies assembling, everything happening at once, everything equal at the starting line, at first, until collisions and mergers started to shape and reshape matter, and differences began to appear. And everything was moving away from everything else even at this moment, he thought, and would continue to move until the universe ended.

How? The experts couldn't agree. Maybe everything will stop expanding and fall in on itself, the way Adell's cakes did when he walked too heavily in the kitchen. But if that happened, why would it matter, he thought, if the beginning was still in progress, even as the universe was ending. A siren started its "blip, blip," somewhere to the southeast, turning into a demented howl as it came nearer and nearer. On its way to Parkland Hospital, probably. His wife had told him she always said a quick little prayer for whomever was in the ambulance when they saw or heard one. He kept trying to remember to ask her if she roused long enough to pray when she heard an ambulance siren in the middle of the night. Not that she was overly religious. Once he happened to hear her say "damn" when she dropped a glass and broke it. And she'd confided to him that her former church had made entirely too much of the Apostle Paul.

He looked at his watch. 2:58 a.m. He got out of his recliner, picked up the flashlight, and went out the door, leaving the lamp on as he always did.

He walked. The air was moist and cool on his face. Traffic had thinned out so that there were intervals of silence that lasted as long as ten to twelve seconds. There. He heard the frogs, trilling for rain. He smiled when he heard them; it was like something extra, almost a bonus. He turned off his flashlight.

A few stars glimmered. Between 2:00 a.m. and dawn was the only time stars were visible. Any other time the city's lights overpowered them. If he looked up too long, he would get dizzy, but he wanted to look at the night sky and think about the giant telescope somewhere out in space searching for other galaxies, searching for the beginning of the universe. He thought of Adell, asleep in their bed, and Mr. Constable, who would be approaching the landing between the second and third floors of his house, in the dark, of course, and he wondered how much longer the old man could pad up and down those stairways, night after night.

He reached the south side of the property, moving slowly to the east. Trees on this side, big sycamores and cottonwoods, some maple. They threw shadows on the grass, and the ground underneath the trees was cooler. He could feel the difference in temperature even through his shoe soles.

Coming up on the east side of the house beside the french doors, pausing, as he always did, to see the flicker of light on the landing. 3:07. Mr. Constable was exactly on time.

Turning his back to the house, Odus listened. The leaves on the cottonwoods were rustling as the wind rose, but for almost a full fifteen seconds there was a break in the traffic. He strained to hear the frogs trilling again. Then the traffic picked back up with its usual roar, and another ambulance started to howl somewhere out toward the Central Expressway.

He tilted his head back, peered up at the night sky. He thought about what it would be like to stare through a telescope and see time and space beginning, everything new, everything similar. He wanted to talk to Adell about the piece, but he knew it was useless. He thought about their friends and wondered what they would say if he called them to talk about time and space. He laughed softly. And as the ambulance wail swept by, the tone changing in a phenomenon he knew (he'd read it somewhere) as the Doppler effect, it was as if everything was sweeping past him, leaving him standing in the darkness on the grounds of another man's property, confronting the fact that he was a watchman, pure and simple. No security about it. But a familiar feeling returned to comfort him, a feeling of knowing something (he was not sure just what) that no one else knew.

He sighed, turned his flashlight back on and continued his rounds. 3:09 a.m. He was wide awake. Walking his rounds. For Adell, for the people in the ambulances, for the drivers of the cars in the maze of streets and freeways, for the people in their beds, people who didn't know or care about the universe, and for Mr. Constable, so he wouldn't have to watch alone. Beware thy pride, he whispered, laughing softly in the dark.

Pausing, he looked at the landing again. He thought he could still see the tiny, faint light glimmering, disappearing and reappearing, all in the vicinity of the main staircase. On impulse, he raised his flashlight in a salute, and in a few seconds, as if in reply, the pinpoint of light made a choppy arc and then winked out, leaving the house in total darkness.

 

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