Stephen Ornes
Briefly Luminous Against the Dark

A few weeks before Frank’s 80th birthday, he and Lucy visited a young doctor – nearly a generation younger than their own children – who said Frank had Alzheimer’s and things could get bad, fast. Lucy cried and Frank held her hand tightly. She drove home, and Frank put his window down and smiled at the white blossoms on the trees, visible from the interstate. When they pulled into the driveway, Lucy turned off the car, wiped her eyes, and told Frank that she thought it’d be best if they didn’t tell the children yet.

“Tell them what?” he asked, turning away from the window and still smiling.

Lucy nodded, squeezed his hand, and reminded him that the young doctor – the one nearly a generation younger than their own children – had said Frank had a disease in his brain. He said things could get bad, fast. Frank’s smile faded and he released Lucy’s hand. He nodded and said, with an edge in his voice, “I know what the doctor said.” Though he wasn’t sure, to tell the truth.

 

Over the next few months, the word disease blazed in Frank’s brain so often he began to imagine that somewhere in the vast cavern of his head hung a green, glowing krypton-neon sign with a short. Its message was that word – disease – briefly luminous against the dark.

Disease, Lucy had said.

Disease, Frank had said back.

Disease disease disease, the doctor had said.

 

In the fall, Frank looked at the falling leaves and thought of his disease, but by then the word itself was fuzzying. Dis-what. He couldn’t even be sure it was about him. Had they been talking about him? Or was there someone else? Someone with a disease? Then he noticed the trees again, and they had fewer leaves than he expected.

Then, sometimes, all of it came back so quickly it almost hurt. His entire life: Everything that he was losing. During one moment of clarity, he saw a calendar and gasped for air; but by the time he found words the panic had faded away. Lucy once found him sobbing in front of a mirror, but by the time he could speak he couldn’t tell her what the matter was.

Not all was lost, however. Frank found that, by some miracle, when the fog settled in to his present he could retreat to the past; rewind his life. As the misery and awfulness of the present faded, it often faded into some joyous memory. At first, it was sheer remembrance but soon it took on the character and the immediacy of the present – so much so that he truly believed he was younger and smarter, facing an uncertain but bright future.

 

Then, one day, Lucy told him to get ready to go out to dinner. His mind snapped clear. She told him that she had an aneurysm and was scheduled to have a surgery the next day, in the hospital, and “tonight might be our very last night together, or the last night of everything as we’ve made it.”

 

At dinner that night, they sat in a restaurant and looked at each other across the laminated table. Frank patted his pocket and felt something bulky. But instead of recognizing his wallet, the act of touching his slacks sent his mind into a tailspin; he believed that in his pocket was the ring – The Ring – and across from him was the woman who would say yes or no.

Meanwhile, her words sort of washed around his head, gently lapped at the edge of acknowledgement like the tide steadily rising up the beach. She said something about being old and love, and he smiled.

 

By the time she’d finished that sentence about love and being old, he’d started zooming back through time and space to a night long ago when darkness represented things that hadn’t happened yet, rather than things that had been taken away.

His focus slipped again, and he landed in a car, at night, in Texas, decades earlier. That night Frank and Lucy drove west, singing to the radio with the rear speakers blown and the windows down. Hot air blew around them and caught Lucy’s long hair, and some loose papers in the back seat flew away. They wanted to see the sun rise over the rim of the Palo Duro canyon in the panhandle. She had said that the canyon comes upon you out of nowhere, that you drive along the dry dusty earth and suddenly a hole opens up and swallows you.

The night sky was big and open and bright, and they pulled over in a dark field to sit on the hood and point. He looked at her and could see her silhouette against the luminescent sky-river of the Milky Way, the contour of her face demarcated by the hazy stars. The moon shone on one perfectly round spot on her cheek. He had come back from the war and she had kissed him with years of pent-up excitement. Nothing else felt like that.

She traced the flyswatter constellation with her index finger, and in the darkness he followed as if a great light came from her nail, a tiny lighthouse in front of his face. He got the joke and pointed out the toaster constellation, just above the horizon, and she laughed brightly. She kissed his neck and he ran his fingers through her hair. That night, he realized that without her the sky was just sky, and the darkness just darkness, and he wondered what kind of ring would surprise and delight her.

 

Frank landed again in his own head, in the restaurant, but unsure of when it was. Then he felt the pocket and remembered the proposal. Lucy’s finger danced lightly down the plastic menu.

“I believe the waiter would like to take your order,” she said. She smiled tightly and picked up her soda and nodded slightly. The straw bent just above the rim of the glass, and she moved forward slightly to catch it with her mouth.

Frank looked up at the waiter’s smooth face, the hand poised over the pad of paper, and said, “The usual.”

“We’ve never been here,” Lucy said, “Frank.”

“Right,” he said. “A hamburger. With cheese. A cheeseburger,” he said. The waiter smiled, wrote with his pencil and walked away. Frank looked again at Lucy; she had put down the soda and held her hands together on the table. She was so ladylike. She wore a turquoise necklace that brought out the light green in her eyes, and they seemed to dance as she looked at him. She cocked her head to one side and her hair shifted on her shoulder. She lightly drummed her fingers on the table; her sculpted fingernails matched her necklace.

“You seem to be up to something,” she said. “Penny for your thoughts?”

He smiled and took his water glass, but he caught it so quickly that some of the water spilled on the tablecloth.

“I was thinking of that night in Texas,” he said.

She smiled.

“We’re still in Texas. We live in Texas. We have, for a very long time.”

“You know.”

 

Then, just as quickly, he was back on the road with his bride. Though they weren’t married yet. They were already married. They weren’t. They were. The thought of whether they were or they weren’t was sucked out of the wide-open windows and vanished into the ether.

That night, they took state highways. They passed through Henrietta and Childress and Vernon, towns that lit up briefly against the night and vanished again. Lucy said the towns looked like jewels and the ribbon of highway was a gold chain.

As they approached Electra they were playing truth-or-dare, and he dared her to run around the town square topless. She acted shocked and modest as they approached the center of town, but when they parked they saw that the sprinklers were watering the grass. She said she was hot anyway so she made him promise he would never, ever tell anyone, and she took off her white dress and her bra and jumped out of the car. She ran right through the sprinklers in panties and waved merrily to the old people walking in the park. One old woman waved back, slowly, without smiling, and the young woman ran back toward the car. She slowed down to a walk and stood in the headlights, supernaturally white.

She said, laughing, “you thought I wouldn’t do it did you.”

She placed her hands on her hips and turned around twice. Her green eyes sparkled with the tears of laughter and mischief as she sauntered to the trunk. She pulled out her bag of clothes and got back in the front seat. She leaned over and wrung out her long brown hair in his lap. He laughed and laughed and they drove away from Electra, where they didn’t know anyone and would probably never return. She reminded him that it was her turn next.

 

“You know how I know you’re up to something?” Lucy asked as she tapped one finger on the table once. Suddenly he was back in the restaurant, across from her.

“No,” he said, looking away from her hair.

“It’s because you put your water glass on your salad plate. Do you see?”

He picked up the water glass in his hand and could not remember where it did go.

“I’m such a buffoon, Lucy. You must think I’m such a buffoon.”

She smiled and rested her chin in her hands. “I think no such thing, Frank. I think you’re up to something tonight.”

“Yes I am,” he said, finally setting down the water glass on the table.

“Well so am I,” she said.

“Then you should go first,” he said.

She nodded politely. She touched her necklace and then rested her cheek in her palm. She traced a circle on the tablecloth with her fingertip. She picked up the napkin and dabbed her eye and then put it down again. She touched her necklace again. She turned her head slightly to one side. He watched her for any sign of disapproval.

“Tomorrow. I’m having surgery tomorrow,” she said.

“That’s a good one.”

“I am.”

“Well maybe we’ve got other plans.”

She smiled with her lips together and exhaled through her nose.

“No. We don’t.”

She didn’t laugh. He suspected that she knew what he wanted to ask her. She was a clever joker, much more savvy than he ever was. But he’d been so careful to hide the ring. He wondered if he could hide something so well no one would ever find it.

 

That night in Texas, she had made him drive without pants. That was what she dared him to do, that night, when it was his turn for a dare. Frank drove in his worn, white underwear and if they stopped or if he had to go in to a gas station then he had to go in his underwear and his button-up shirt. She told him that she thought herself very clever for finding such an appropriate and just revenge. He also thought her very clever; in fact, he began to suspect that she was smarter than he was. She could talk about country music or the Texas economy or what geography had to do with oil; she knew all of the presidents in order and all the state capitols. He asked questions to find the boundaries of her knowledge. She told him that to look in the sky is to look back in time, that it takes so long for starlight to show up in our sky that we’re actually seeing the stars as they appeared many, many years ago. He talked about being on a big boat during the war, and his new factory job, and other jobs he might get in the future.

 

“I’m sorry,” the waiter said, suddenly reappearing next to Frank. “It’s crazy tonight, a waitress didn’t show. I don’t even know which order is yours. Sir, what did you order?”

Frank’s mind hopscotched between times; the jarring effect of traipsing through entire universes made him dizzy. He wasn’t sure if they were on the road, or if he wanted to propose, or if this had to do with the young doctor who looked younger than their children, but he knew something had gone terribly wrong.

“Goddamn shit for brains,” he said calmly but loudly, searching for mooring and patting his pocket and then looking up in alarm. “Shit for brains!”

Don’t know where that came from, Frank thought. The waiter looked across the table at Lucy; she held her hands very still.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Frank, please tell the man what you ordered.”

“Shit for brains!” he yelled. Other people turned around; times and places turned around.

“I haven’t even ordered yet,” he said.

“Yes you have.”

“Well I want something.”

“He ordered a cheeseburger,” she told the waiter.

“Thank you,” said the waiter.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

She brought the napkin to her face and then placed it again in her lap. She held it there and looked at him.

“I need you to keep your temper,” she said, and for a moment clarity settled in, and everything was in its place, and they were old and something was being finalized. “I am having surgery tomorrow. I will be in the hospital and I don’t know how long. I will not be able to take care of you anymore. For awhile. This is a special night.”

He laughed as again his mind blasted off to other places, happier times. “I am up to something.”

 

As the night wore on, Lucy yawned and the highway stretched out between towns. They turned off the radio and the only noise was the wind, and themselves, and they were comfortable in their silence. She smiled at him for awhile and offered to drive; he declined and said he wanted to drive, and they both looked ahead. When she drifted off to sleep, he watched the road and watched the sky, and it seemed to him that the night had gotten darker and the road bigger. After a few miles, he realized that one of the headlights had gone out, but he didn’t want to alarm her so he drove on. He could have driven by the light of the moon, if he had wanted to. It was so bright. He thought about the canyon, somewhere in the distance, waiting in the dark to swallow them.

 

Frank found himself sitting at the table, looking at Lucy. He touched the bulky pocket. “I’m thinking of that night in Texas,” he said, his voice quivering slightly. “I’ve never told anyone what you did in that town.”

“Well. I appreciate that. That was some night,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, unable to stop the smile from spreading across his face.

“I need to tell you something,” she said, also smiling. “I am having surgery tomorrow and someone is going to come take care of you. We met her, Franklin, that woman we met? She’s coming to take care of you. I am going away.”

“The canyon?” he asked. “We’ll go together. We already did.”

“Oh, the canyon,” she said, looking away. “No, dear. Not the canyon. I will spend every minute I can with you.”

He felt the heat of the moment rising up from his groin to his neck and his forehead. He stood up and brought the thing out so abruptly that his pocket turned inside out. He slid it across the table and opened it so she could see the diamonds, the diamonds that reminded him of the night that he knew, of the hundreds of millions of stars. Of looking into space is looking back in time.

“Will you marry me?” he said. “Will you? Will you please?”

She covered her mouth with her hand.

 

His mind bucked and brayed at the restraints of reality, begging to escape again, but Frank wanted to stay long enough to hear what Lucy said. It was no use; he fell into his own mind and found himself driving in the dark, again.

It had been many miles since he had seen any lights on the road, any lights at all. In the middle of the darkness of the road and the air and the sky a greenish light flickered. He thought, there it is, right in front of us, and here we are on the verge of everything. It was a tollbooth, right there in the middle of West Texas. A single booth, a single lane with a sign reading “CARS GO HERE.” He slowed down and wondered if the toll booth operator would notice that he wasn’t wearing pants. He looked over and saw that Lucy was sound asleep with her lap belt buckled, and even though light was coming into the car from the tollbooth she appeared to be wrapped in darkness.

He found a few coins. He held them out and waited for the toll booth attendant to take them. The man, fat and grey, was slumped over his small change table, sound asleep. His back rose and fell in the green light, and Frank slid the change under the attendant’s left elbow.

Frank said out loud, “There must be no loneliness like the loneliness of a toll booth operator.” He wondered if he could sit alone under harsh light, collecting quarters, dozing off. As he drove away, he looked over at Lucy, but he could barely see her.

Somewhere out there, the canyon was waiting to gobble them up.

 

But it would have to wait: Frank quivered in the restaurant, relieved that he would get to hear Lucy’s answer. “Do you remember the toaster? Do you remember the flyswatter?” he asked, reaching across the table and pulling at her hands.

“Yes,” she whispered, squeezing his hands. “Yes. Yes, I will marry you every time. I will marry you a hundred times. We are married. We are already married. Oh Frank, where are you? Where are you? I am so tired and I miss you so much.”

She lifted both hands in front of her face, and he saw her hands. He really saw them. This had happened so many times before, but it didn’t make the experience any less awful. It was like a wrecking ball had punched a hole in the wall and terrible light came streaming in. Her hand were wrinkled, spotted.

They were already married; he had a disease, and she was going to have surgery. Her skin hung loosely on her hand. He felt panic rising, until he recognized her bright, wet eyes and nearly fainted with relief. It – time – had happened so fast. And kept happening so fast, over and over. With horror, he realized that he’d had this revelation many times before, even that day, and without mercy or pity the truth filled his mind. The truth that his mind couldn’t stay put, but time marched on in his absence.

Every time he landed in the real world – the awfulness of what was really, truly happening – he recalled all the embarrassing times that had come before. He felt ashamed. Even worse, that certainty – and the shame – was already fading.

“The dark,” he whispered. He looked down at the box, still in his hands, and saw that it was wasn’t a box at all. He held his old, cracked wallet. The one she had given him for their 40th wedding anniversary. They were already married.

“That was our honeymoon,” she said, placing her folded hands on the table. “The toaster and the flyswatter.”

“Yes, I know,” he said quietly.

“That was fifty-three years ago. Tomorrow I have to have surgery and that woman is going to come take care of you and this might be our – “
He had to interrupt her to keep the moment from slipping away. “I want you know that when I go away, I’m with you, I’m always with you,” he said desperately, clinging to her hands. “So when I say goodbye, know that wherever I go, I’m with you still. Do you see? Do you understand? I may not be with you now, but I’m with you all the same.”

She cried and smiled, but his tether to the world loosened.

“Goodbye,” he said, finally.

The dark closed in around his mind like an ocean wave crashing into a grotto; disease flashed green; he opened his eyes and saw that Lucy was crying.

He wondered why. He held an old wallet in front of him, perfectly still, unsure what to do. He was sure something large had just happened, but now he couldn’t remember.

That night, so long ago, the dark had stretched out like a great blanket over everything, over the car and Frank and Lucy. He drove, scared and cold, even though hot air blew all around him and the other headlight flicked out.

“There’s a great hole that will surprise us and swallow us,” he said, dropping his wallet and grabbing Lucy’s hands, unsure if he was in a restaurant or hurtling down a dark road into the future. “It’s close and I’m scared.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling and crying at the same time. “It’s getting closer. That’s where we’re going. That’s where we are.”

“Then that’s when we are,” he said, smiling.

Stephen Ornes is a science writer in Nashville (http://stephenornes.com) who covers physics, math, and cancer research. Despite his profession, his fiction is not science fiction. He writes about characters on an edge of their lives.