The Very Large Array
By Jo Salas
Published in bosque magazine, November 2013.
“Are you doing anything really exciting this January?” asks the star-bordered ad in the paper.
“No,” says Neil Granger aloud. “Duh.” It is a word he’s learned from Melanie and her friends and he finds it expressive in its succinctness though would never use it in actual conversation.
The ad goes on. “Explore the universe with astronomer Owen James at his private observatory! View the night skies through a 12-inch telescope! No science background needed!” The class is on Thursday nights. Neil is free on Thursdays, as he is every other night of the week.
He scans the paper to see what else is going on. They are beating the drums for another war. Afghanistan and the “war on terror” are not enough. It will be Iraq this time—their real target all along, thinks Neil. “Propaganda!” he snorts, reading yet another story claiming that Saddam Hussein was Osama bin Laden’s ally in the 9/11 attacks. There are speculations about Saddam’s evil intent and his hidden weapons of mass destruction. Neil suspects that most of the newspaper’s political coverage is printed verbatim from White House press releases, full of lies to sell the war they are itching for. “Your job is to tell the truth, morons!” he shouts at the editors and reporters. Neil’s one-sided invectives often grow heated to the point where he has to hurl the newspaper onto the floor, scaring Spinoza. He’s given up watching television news altogether.
He picks the paper up off the floor, cuts out the ad for the astronomy class, and puts the rest in the recycling bin. Not impulsive but decisive, he picks up the phone and tells the voice mail message that he wants to register.
Neil turns on the radio to the classical music station and sits down in the living room with his bowl of rice and vegetables. Spinoza is determined to claim his lap. Neil has long accepted that Spinoza’s will is stronger than his own. He holds the bowl awkwardly above the cat’s head, eating slowly, listening to something bland played on strings. He thinks about the war against Iraq and the pointless, lasting misery it will unleash. Have we not learned a damn thing, he thinks to himself. He remembers the Vietnam years, when he had vigor and hope as well as a searing determination to bring his government to its senses and stop the slaughter. He leans his head back on the couch. If he were a weeping man he would weep. But he is tearless. The passion in him now is of the dry, incendiary kind. He puts the empty bowl on the coffee table and strokes Spinoza who responds with a squeak of pleasure without waking up.
The phone rings and the machine answers. He recognizes the teasing voice of the caller. Earlier in the day she accosted him outside the café where, since his retirement, he indulges in an occasional morning coffee. “Alone and palely loitering, Neil?” she said, her small hand resting on his arm. Neil does not let her know that he recognizes the quote since it would lead to further conversation about poetry and Keats, and he would like to get away from her as soon as he can. Roberta is a friend of his former wife. They’re in a book club together, reading women writers. Whatever. That’s another expression he’s learned from Melanie. These young people may not know much but they do have a way with laconic utterances. Whatever.
On the phone Roberta is leaving a message. “So, Neil, if you’re free next Thursday please join us. Just a few friends, and I’ll make my famous risotto.”
Neil grabs the phone. “Roberta? I just came in and heard your voice,” he lies. “Actually I’m busy on Thursday.” He cannot resist the opportunity to tell her he’s busy. For once he has a bona fide excuse.
Roberta is unperturbed. “OK, another time. Ciao, bello.” To his knowledge Roberta has never set foot in Italy.
He is aware that Roberta and other women feel that he should make himself available for dating. He knows that he is lucky, if luck it is, to have become neither fat nor bald in middle age. His features are inoffensive. He is moderately youthful in his body. “An accident of nature,” he acknowledges to his image in the mirror.
Melanie had responded to his notice on the pet store bulletin board seeking a cat-sitter for a three-day absence–the last conference he’d have to attend before retiring. It was not long after 9/11. Life felt contingent, insecure, and he was uneasy about leaving Spinoza alone, supplied with food and water, as he might otherwise have done. When she came to meet him and the cat, Spinoza crept onto her lap within seconds and remained there purring. Neil had never seen him so smitten. The girl was about fourteen, he guessed, tall for her age, with a pleasant though not pretty face. A bright girl, quiet in her speech and comfortable with herself.
“Sure,” she said when he explained that a half hour visit each day would suffice. “I can walk here after school. We’ll have fun, won’t we, Spinoza?”
Spinoza was in fine shape when Neil returned from the conference. Melanie came to the house the next day to pick up her pay. The cat materialized immediately to greet her. Melanie sat on the floor, caressing him.
“Do you think I could visit him sometimes?” she asked, looking up. “I can’t have a cat at home because my brother’s allergic.”
“Certainly you may,” he said. “If it’s OK with your parents.” Neil had not met them. He assumed they were conventional people who would not see the world as he did—most people were. But they had produced a nice child, caring and responsible.
Neil looked at her, neatly cross-legged on the floor, the ecstatic cat enclosed by her thin jeans-clad legs. He would be pleased if she came to visit. But the girl would surely forget about Spinoza soon enough.
The moonless sky is dark by the time Neil leaves on Thursday. He feels a growing excitement as he drives to the observatory. He turns onto a small road that climbs toward the mountain, a darker presence against the starlit sky. Neil has the palpable and thrilling sense that he is driving upwards into the realm of the stars themselves. He parks and follows a path through trees toward the observatory. Owen James is standing on his deck, bundled up, greeting people. Neil recognizes him from newspaper photos, forty-ish, tall and authoritative. He gestures to a roofless enclosure on the deck in which Neil can see a large telescope. “We’ll come out here a bit later.” They follow him into the house and upstairs into a low-ceilinged, dimly lit room. Dreamlike electronic music is playing softly. Neil settles himself on a low couch. Owen tells them about the night sky: about the relationship of light and time, about Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler, about the infinitesimally tiny scale of our planet in the universe. Some of this Neil already knows but he receives it like a balm, feeling his mind stretch in directions that have been quiescent for years. Owen leads everyone outside and they take turns climbing up to the eyepiece of the telescope. By now the night is freezing but Neil is warm with excitement. They look at M13, a brilliant ball of suns more than a hundred light-years across.
He walks back to the road, stars wheeling above him. Another class member catches up with him, an older man who had asked a number of questions, not unintelligent. Neil tries to remember his name.
“You live in Mount Laurel too, don’t you?” the man says. “Do you want to drive together next week?”
Neil demurs. He would prefer to drive alone, to recapture the extraordinary sense of ascending into the sky. He takes the man’s phone number, says he’ll call if he can arrange to ride together, knowing he will not.
His euphoria lasts until the next morning when he listens to the news on NPR. He can’t bear to hear those familiar, formerly trusted voices repeating lies with such credulous solemnity. No one in the media is pointing out the logical holes in the official argument. “If you really believe Saddam’s got chemical and nuclear arsenals,” Neil hisses at the radio, “then you must believe he’d use them against American troops.” Conscienceless though Bush and Co are, he can’t imagine they’d send young soldiers to certain death in a nuclear holocaust. Therefore, they know the weapons don’t exist. It just serves their imperialist goals to pretend otherwise.
He despairs to see how so many people swallow and regurgitate the lies. The prospect of war seduces them: suddenly there is a focus, an urgent and clear direction, the laying out of age-old roles of heroism and sacrifice. All bullshit. The yellow-ribbon syndrome, he calls it. He can’t bring himself to argue with people face to face but he signs petitions, sends checks, calls his representatives, writes letters to the paper.
It is only when Neil summons the energy to join one of the anti-war protests that he feels the slightest stirring of hope, striding along the frigid Washington streets surrounded by legions of others who feel as he does, chanting with them, slightly self-conscious but also inspired: “This is what democracy looks like!” And then, the enraged disappointment to realize that there has been no media coverage, it was as though he and tens of thousands of others have not traveled for hours in stuffy buses to get to DC, have not stood and walked all day until their feet and noses are frozen, have not sung and shouted and held up their passionate, witty handmade placards. Except for those who were there, no one knew it had happened. Again he remembers the Vietnam War, the way each protest was amplified in the press, building a movement that forced the war to end. He remembers himself, long-haired, laughing, fearless, holding up a huge peace sign made of dandelions.
When Melanie comes to visit he is careful not to express his frustrations, knowing it’s not fair and would probably backfire if she were to report back to her parents. He has no idea of their politics but he assumes that they would prefer not to expose their young daughter to the rantings of an angry activist. By now he’s met them once or twice; polite, reasonable-seeming people.
Neil would like to have company in his point of view. But his attempts to link with like-minded souls have not been successful. He finds many of them tediously predictable, repeating the mantras of their youth or spouting sentiments as naïve as those of the flag-wavers. And he suspects they find him at best a puzzle: a conservatively-dressed man amongst all the jeans and droopy sweaters, who says little and smiles less. He amuses himself with speculations that perhaps they think he’s a CIA spy. On the five-hour ride to DC he sits next to a woman who tries for the first hour and a half to engage him in conversation, then gives up and spends the remaining time talking with the couple across the aisle.
“Maybe she liked you,” suggests Melanie. She’s on the couch with her legs tucked under her, Spinoza as usual snuggled beside her. Neil has disobeyed his own rule and is telling her about the trip. “What did she look like?” Melanie is at an age where relationships are by default suspected of having romantic connotations.
Neil considers. “I don’t think so, Melanie,” he says. “She was a grandmotherly type. I think she was just trying to entertain herself. It was a very long ride.”
“What did she look like?” says Melanie, persistent.
But he can’t summon her face. “All I remember is her bottomless feedbag. She had to munch about every twenty minutes.”
Melanie grins. “So, did she share her goodies with you?”
“She offered. I declined.”
“Well, I think it’s great that she went. Don’t you think? I mean, an old lady, going all that way, and it was so cold. She must be very worried.”
Melanie hasn’t so far expressed any point of view about the threat of war.
“Many of us are worried,” says Neil. “War is terrible. There’s no point, absolutely no point.” He stops himself.
“I know, crazy. Me and Matt wrote a letter to the president. If there’s a war, it’ll be kids like us who end up going.”
Neil is surprised and pleased to hear about this action. He overlooks the grammar mistake. “I hope very much that the president reads it.” He remembers his zeal at Melanie’s age when he first became aware of the great wrongs in the world and the heady possibility of standing up against them. The excitement of this realization had propelled his teenage years. Optimism was in his bloodstream then, as it is now in hers.
In the astronomy class Owen is talking about extraterrestrials. He’s dispassionate and scientific about it, to Neil’s relief. It would be very disappointing if Owen turned out to be a UFO nut.
“Think about it. There are 400 billion suns in this galaxy alone. If just a tiny percentage of them have planetary systems, that’s a lot of planets. Multiply that by all the suns in the other galaxies. Do you think it’s remotely possible that our planet is the only one that’s developed intelligent life?”
He pauses. The class has learned not to reply to Owen’s rhetorical questions.
“Of course it’s not. The question is, how would we ever know? We’re all so far away from each other. There’s a whole field of study called SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Useless, probably, not because there isn’t any extraterrestrial intelligence, but because the chances of contact are virtually nil. But they keep trying.”
On the screen appears a vast field of tall, ungainly contraptions reaching up toward the sky. “That’s the VLA, the Very Large Array. Those giants are movable radio telescopes spread out over twelve miles in the Southwest. It’s like an enormous ear, listening. They’ve been listening for years. If a signal comes in—they’ll hear it.”
On the way home Neil yearns to savor the idea of distant beings in the black reaches of space who may wonder about us as we wonder about them but who are far beyond the possibility of contact. He regrets succumbing to carpooling with Wes, the man who lives in Mount Laurel. But Wes is as struck as Neil by this vision.
“Thank god, you know,” Wes says, steering cautiously down the dark winding road. “Thank god we can’t get to them, or them to us.” Neil looks at him with appreciation, having been thinking the same thing. “It’s enough just to know they’re out there. They have to be, right?”
“Yes,” says Neil. “They have to be.” The class is ending next week, to his regret.
Neil has become used to Melanie appearing at the back door every week or so to visit Spinoza. He’s learned that she likes corn chips with salsa and he makes sure that he keeps them in supply. She has taken to bringing homework questions to him, once she finds out that he’d been the director of the historical society and is knowledgeable about topics she has to study. He feels some pride when she gets an excellent grade in her history class at the end of the year.
Neil catches himself feeling mildly uncomfortable at the idea of this growing friendship–that’s what it feels like–with a 15-year-old girl. Not the friendship itself, which feels easy and pleasant, but the thought of how it might look to someone else, her parents, for example. Do they worry that he’s a predator? But he puts aside such qualms. It is so long since he’s had a friend of any age. He feels something loosen and flex within himself, the ability to talk, listen, even make a joke on occasion. Once he knows she is interested and engaged he talks to her more about the political situation. He tries to soften the degree of his rage about it but it relieves him considerably to scoff at Bush and Cheney and their ilk. Is he indoctrinating her? She is so open to his opinions, so receptive, so ready to come back with a gratifying “Duh!” and roll of the eyes at Bush’s latest idiotic pronouncement.
On occasion Melanie brings friends with her, Matt and Caitlin. Neil is struck by their androgynous sameness and their gentleness, the three of them fussing over Spinoza, who adores the attention, chatting to each other in soft voices. Sometimes Neil joins them; sometimes he sits with his book enjoying their murmuring presence. It is easier than he expected to find topics of conversation: the Internet, cats, the war. All three of them, he has learned, are vehemently opposed to Bush’s warmongering, full of scorn for Bush himself.
When she comes alone Melanie is in the habit of picking up a book or an artefact, or standing in front of a painting, and asking him about it. He enjoys her curiosity and the opportunity to talk about the objects that his life is furnished with. She picks up a small wooden carving of a fat, jolly man stretching his arms above his head. “What’s this?”
He tells her about the Laughing Buddha—“Not the real Buddha, but a Chinese monk from much later. He’s supposed to bring good luck. It was given to me by a Chinese historian from Shanghai. Mr Huang.” He explains, briefly, about Buddhism. Again Neil feels the need for caution. He is not sure of Melanie’s family’s beliefs: they could be fundamentalist Christians for all he knows. So many people are, these days. He does not mention that he was for several years part of a local sangha until exasperated by a new member who too quickly acquired the formal robes and accoutrements, pressing fawning attentions on the sensei. Neil couldn’t stand this oversized altar boy and recognized that his own intolerance was a serious failing in Buddhist terms, so he stopped attending.
They are looking at the Laughing Buddha when Spinoza, who uncharacteristically has not yet appeared to greet Melanie, staggers into the room, his legs collapsing under him. Melanie and Neil run to him. Neil is terrified. Spinoza’s head is crooked and his eyes are zigzagging from side to side. Melanie is in tears. “What’s wrong? What’s happening to him?” But Neil has no idea. He’s never seen anything like this. “I have to take him to the vet.” He’s thinking it’s a stroke. Do cats have strokes? There’s no time to look in his cat books, or go online, or even call the vet.
“Neil—I can drive,” says Melanie. “I don’t have my license yet but I know how, let me drive and you can sit in the back with him.”
Neil looks at his beloved cat, whose life might be in danger and is clearly suffering. “OK, yes, let’s go.”
He wraps Spinoza in a towel—he has a cat carrier but he can’t thrust the poor creature into a cage at this moment. He cradles the cat in his arms, calling out directions to Melanie, who is driving with care. Spinoza is trembling and claws at his neck in panic. Neil whispers to him, trying to sooth him. His own heart is pounding with fear.
The vet’s office is only ten minutes away. The receptionist listens to Neil’s hurried explanation and shows them into an examining room. Neil and Melanie wait, silent except for their murmurs of comfort to Spinoza.
Dr Waters examines the cat, her skilful hands imparting a degree of calm.
“It’s not a stroke,” she says at last. “I think it’s vestibular disease.” She explains: it’s probably caused by an undetected ear infection, and in spite of the alarming symptoms, it’s not life threatening. They’ll give him antibiotics and it will probably resolve in a day or two. “I do think we should keep him here overnight just to watch him. You and your daughter can go home. You should be able to come and get him in the morning.”
Neither Melanie nor Neil corrects her assumption about their relationship. Neil is overwhelmed with relief. He’s never heard of vestibular disease but he knows a little about inner ear function and it seems plausible. He looks at Melanie, who is trying not to cry. He pats her shoulder. “Let’s say goodbye to him, then.”
She leans down to Spinoza. “See you tomorrow, little guy. Don’t be scared. You’ll be OK.”
Neil strokes the cat’s back with a light finger. He has an absurd impulse to kiss him but does not. He thanks the vet and they leave.
Neil drives on the way home, collecting himself. Melanie continues to dab her eyes.
“I’m OK,” she says when Neil looks at her. “I just feel so bad for him. You think she’s right? That it’s not serious?”
“She knows what she’s talking about,” says Neil, though he himself finds it hard to reconcile the cat’s extreme state with the vet’s reassuring diagnosis. “They’ll take good care of him. Melanie—thank you so much for helping. I do appreciate it.”
“I liked that part of it,” says Melanie. “The driving part.”
He brings her to her house. The situation seems to call for more than the usual goodbye, so he leans across to give her a quick peck on the cheek. She hugs him, her tears flowing again. “Poor Spinoza! I hope he’s OK.”
He reassures her as best he can. “I’ll let you know what they say tomorrow.”
That evening is the roll-call vote in the Senate on the resolution to authorize Bush’s war. The House has already voted yes, though with a sizable number of dissenters. Neil knows the vote is likely to pass, with war’s inexorable momentum. But by now the voices of the anti-war activists seem so loud. A strong “no” vote in the Senate could at least be a brake on the rush to catastrophe.
Neil turns on the television, bracing himself.
One by one the senators stand up and deliver their vote. Yes. Yes, Mr President, by all means. Drop bombs. Send in thousands of troops to massacre and be massacred. It’s OK by me. Yes. Yes. Often the actual vote is preceded by a reiteration of the familiar specious arguments.
Neil has a tiny residual hope that his own senators will stand up for a higher principle, since that is the desire of most of their New York constituents. Hillary Clinton appears, dressed in somber gray. He listens to her grating voice denouncing Saddam Hussein’s crimes and his intent to re-arm. But, unlike the others, she also criticizes the US’s support for him in the past and warns sternly against preemptive war. “History has at times proved dissenters to be right,” she says.
Oh Hillary, thinks Neil. Oh Hillary. Is it possible that in spite of everything you are a dissenter?
Her long speech builds to a conclusion. Neil leans forward.
“If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us,” she says. “So, Mr. President, for all its appeal, a unilateral attack is not a good option.”
Yes! Exactly! He can’t believe she has summoned the courage to go against the murderous flow.
But now what’s she saying? “I will take the President at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible.” This president’s word? Is she kidding? “And therefore, ladies and gentlemen,” she continues, “I have concluded that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation. I cast it with conviction.” She goes on, but Neil turns off the television and stares at the blank screen.
Later he listens to the news on the radio. Seventy-seven out of a hundred senators, including his, have voted to authorize war.
Neil is outraged. Furious at them, furious at himself for thinking for even a second that it could have turned out any other way.
In the morning he finds out that Spinoza is doing better and can come home later in the day. He expects that Melanie will phone or appear. So far he has avoided calling her house if possible, feeling the slight awkwardness of it. But when he has not heard from her by four in the afternoon he telephones. Her mother answers.
“You let my daughter drive your car.” Her voice is icy.
“Oh—Melanie must have explained to you, about the emergency with my cat—” but she cuts him off.
“Melanie is fifteen years old. She’s too young to drive. You were putting her in danger.” The woman’s voice rises. “We could have you arrested, do you realize?”
“Ms…” he scrambles for the last name. “Ms Sherman. I’m very sorry. It was an emergency. We thought the cat might die.”
Again she cuts him off. “Her dad and I aren’t happy with Melanie visiting you anyway. We don’t think it’s right.” Neil shrinks from what she’s about to say. “From now on you won’t be seeing her at all.”
“Ms Sherman—please, let me explain—perhaps I could come by and speak with you and your husband.” But the woman hangs up.
Neil sinks into a chair. He tries to comprehend. He senses great sorrow hovering, not yet landed. And a compound humiliation: the implication that he is someone who preys on the young, and his own awareness that if he had friends among his peers he would not treasure Melanie’s company so much.
He thinks of Melanie, how frustrated and sad and worried she must be. He forces himself to dial again. He says, “Please just tell Melanie that the cat is OK,” and hangs up before she can.
He brings Spinoza home in the cat carrier with instructions to keep him in one room until he’s steadier on his feet. Spinoza is better but not at all himself. Neil sits on the couch with the cat resting on his lap. He is alone again. His cat is ill. There will be no more young people in the house with their contagious assumption of a beneficent world. A war will start and people will die, and be injured, and become displaced. Young men will turn into rapists and torturers, youths who if they had not been sent to war would have lived more or less decent lives. The rest of the world will hate and despise the United States even more, with justification. Some will attack again.
We have failed, thinks Neil. Greed, lies and fear have prevailed again.
Darkness falls but Neil does not turn on the lights. The house is silent except for occasional creaking as it settles into the chilly night. Neil is not seeing the point of anything. Why exert oneself if all one’s efforts are fruitless? Why hope? Why live, in fact?
Neil dozes, then wakes, still upright on the couch. The aura of a dream is with him. He waits and the dream comes into focus. He sees the Very Large Array in the distance. He approaches and realizes that is not radio telescopes but Laughing Buddhas, dozens of them, each thirty or forty feet high, stretching its polished wooden arms to the sky. His dream self understands that this display is intended for his benefit.
Spinoza hasn’t moved, his steady breathing almost imperceptible. A quarter moon is low in the sky. Neil has adopted Owen James’s faint scorn of the moon as an object whose closeness makes it unchallenging to observe, its brightness only obscuring more interesting phenomena. He stares it until it sinks below the window.