by Mark Crimmins
So there I am on the Bowery Cafe patio, sitting across from Cynthia Thorn for the third time in my life. We’re sat at a round white plastic table. I first met her at a conference in Sacramento and had her pegged as a deconstructionist. We had a passionate argument about hierarchy and hamburgers. At the final wine and cheese we discovered that our flights left San Francisco at the same time. Cynthia hadn’t rented a car. She was convinced she would get in a wreck on the California freeways and was fretting about how she’d get back to the airport. I offered her a ride and she accepted. But then, just as the party was winding down, she rushed over to me and said she’d decided to take the bus after all. Fftt! She was gone. Being a scholar didn’t mean I wasn’t the next Ted Bundy, I guess. She puts her bag on the table and starts talking about the eclipse.
“I can’t believe we’re gonna get to see it. Although it’s weird because all we’ll see is this huge absence. Still, I’ve never seen an eclipse before. Do you think they’re dangerous? I read that every year something like a million people are blinded by eclipses. I mean, that must be terrible. That must be a horrible, horrible thing—to go blind! To have to live in a world of darkness. But I’m excited to see the eclipse anyway. Really. I bought these.” She pulls some eclipse-viewing spectacles from her bag and puts them on. She looks beautifully absurd. “Do these look weird? I don’t care. I wanna see the eclipse but I’m not going fucking blind! Do you think we’ll be able to see it here?”
“I think it’s sort of general all over the city.”
“Right, yeah. Fair enough. I guess it’s just everywhere.”
“That’s my impression, yes.”
The only other time I’d seen her was in New York. I’d gone down there to sniff around Manhattan and see if any academic positions were coming open. Late in the afternoon, I was walking up Fifth Avenue and I bumped into Cynthia in front of the Public Library. She was doing research for her book on popular culture and couldn’t believe I just happened to be in town and right there on the street when she came out of the library. A familiar face among all those millions of strangers. I asked her to dinner. We had shabu shabu at Nomura’s on Fifty-Sixth Street. It wasn’t quite as pricy as it had been in the past. Cynthia was very interested in why I was in town, so I told her I was visiting my sister in Jersey. But in Sacramento a few months earlier I’d told her my sister lived in Cyprus and Cynthia remembered. I made up a story to explain the inconsistency but Cynthia knew I was lying. As we were eating our red bean ice cream she remembered she had to make an important phone call and left quickly. I was alone by the time I settled the bill.
Now we’re out there on the Bowery patio talking about the eclipse. I’ve tried on the magic spectacles and handed them back. Cynthia’s glad to see other people playing with viewing devices. We ask a guy with a backpack standing near us what time it’s happening exactly. He says it’s just a few minutes away. This seems to be as good a place as any to view the eclipse. Across the arc of Campus Drive, a large crowd of people is gathered in front of the engineering building to view the solar spectacle with special gadgets. But Cynthia’s already been over there.
“It was too crowded. It’s a health hazard. Someone could be trampled in that crowd!”
I found it endearing that this attractive single scholar from Chicago, with tenure and three books to her name already, found so much time in her life for worrying about the world. Injured grasshoppers outside a Sacramento restaurant. The endangered butterflies of Central Park. The myriad victims of a global blindness epidemic. The potential for catastrophe of a few students under faculty supervision gazing through eyepieces at plasterboard reflections of the sun.
The light around us starts to fizzle.
“Omigod—is it me or is it going dark already? This is really weird. I’d better put my goggles on.”
But it isn’t Cynthia. It’s the world itself that’s going dim. The cosmic coincidence is upon us. An eerie dusk descends. The birds grow quiet and still. For a minute or so it’s like a summer midnight in Fairbanks. Then some great hand rotates a planetary dim switch and it starts to go dark. People on the patio take up positions and fine-tune their instruments. The man with the backpack tells us the best way to watch the eclipse is to view its reflection on the tabletop itself. Others are already scrutinizing their tables. Cynthia isn’t sure about this.
“Wait! Are you a scientist? Which department are you in?”
“Physics physics. I wrote my dissertation on photons. That plastic surface is about a hundred times less reflective than a mirror, but it’s reflective enough that you’ll be able to see everything that’s going on without looking directly at the sun. It’s as good a way as any to watch the eclipse indirectly. That way you won’t hurt your eyes.”
“Whichever side of the table you watch it from? Doesn’t it make a difference? The sun’s over here. Wouldn’t the rays bounce off and go over there? Wouldn’t it be dangerous for him?”
She gestures at me but the guy puts us at ease.
We take up our positions. I move around to Cynthia’s side of the table—just to calm her nerves—and together, leaning over the patio table, we watch the annular eclipse take shape. Cynthia keeps her spectacles on throughout. Soon the tiny ring of fire has disappeared and the darkness begins to lift. It’s over in a few minutes.
A quarter of an hour earlier, I’d been getting an Irish Cream coffee at the cafe counter when I saw a familiar shape at the register and realized it was Cynthia. Encounter number three. Our meetings were beginning to seem fated. Strangely enough, she didn’t seem too surprised to run into me. This was the campus where I was finishing up my doctorate so she figured she might run into me. She was in town doing research at the Benjamin Institute.
We sit there and chat for a while, but it’s not getting any lighter. Cynthia has finally taken off her spectacles. She seems puzzled by the sky.
“Isn’t it darker than before?”
“It wasn’t dark before.”
“That’s what I mean. So why is it still dark if the eclipse is over?”
“I guess it takes a while to return to normal.”
“I don’t know about that. I’ve been reading about eclipses for weeks. I’ve never seen anything about it being dark when it’s over. It happens, then it’s finished—the sun shines.”
“Yeah, but I think this was a big eclipse.”
“Are you kidding me? A big eclipse? I’ve never heard anybody use that adjective to modify that noun. It should be daylight out here and it’s still dark.” She stuns me for a second by calling over the man with the backpack. He’s taking some reading from a little gizmo. “Excuse me! Excuse me! Sorry to bother you again, but—this seems really silly—do you still find it kind of dark out here?”
“Yes. The darkness will linger. There’ll be a sort of twilight.”
The man with the backpack recedes.
“No problem,” I say to Cynthia. “Things’ll just return to normal gradually. It’ll just keep getting lighter for the next little while.”
“But it isn’t getting any lighter, Tim! That’s my point! Look at the sky—it’s dark! It’s been ten minutes since the eclipse. It isn’t getting any brighter out here!” Cynthia’s looking very grave. “Tim, tell me we didn’t just blind ourselves looking at this fucking table!”
“I’m not feeling blind.”
“But don’t you see? Maybe it isn’t darker because of the eclipse any more! Maybe it’s darker because we’ve damaged our eyes!”
“Cynthia, if we’d damaged our eyes, we’d already know it. We’d be blind now.”
“No! That’s not how it works, Tim. I’ve read all about it. What do you think I was doing on the flight from Chicago? Reviewing how to strap my life jacket on and slide down that chute thing?” She pulls from her purse a dog-eared copy of a book, Land of Darkness. “I was reading this. It’s an autobiographical novel by this guy, Chet Duchesne.”
She fuddles the cover back and points to the picture on the inside sleeve. A man in cowboy gear and dark glasses, holding a white stick, smiles at me from the rectangular color shot. I take a quick look at the bio:
Chet Duchesne of El Paso, Texas, was blinded by observing an eclipse of the sun at Big Bend in 1995. In this shattering novel, he confronts the loss of the faculty we most prize: sight. Duchesne’s heroic attempt to come to terms with life after accidental blindness is transformed by his luminous prose into the story of Lug Krago, a rancher who is forced to look at the sun by ruthless rustlers. A soaring testimony to the human spirit and its capacity to overcome adversity, Land of Darkness challenges the validity of Emerson’s assertion that to be human is to be a gigantic eyeball, and Chet Duchesne’s harrowing tale carries with it the haunting conviction of testamentary art.
It seems odd to me that Grove has published this.
“This guy, this Chet Duchesne—this Lug Krago character in the novel?—he doesn’t go blind all at once. The way he describes it in the book is like it feels out here right now. There’s a somber quality to the light and then it gets fainter and fainter until the protagonist is plunged into a world of blackness.”
“Look, Cynthia, this is a novel. You and me and all these people on the patio and those people over there—none of us are going fucking blind, okay?”
“Do you mind if we go over there and ask those engineer guys?”
“We’ve got our own resident scientist right here—Brains over there with his Geiger counter.”
I gesture at the man with the backpack. But Cynthia leans in close to me.
“Tim, I don’t trust that guy. I don’t think he’s faculty. He looks a bit weird to me. I think he might be a pscyhopath. It’s just a vibe he has.”
“Oh, come on, Cynthia!”
“No! Listen. He told us to watch the eclipse on the tabletop. None of us would have done that if he hadn’t suggested it. But did you notice he didn’t really look at the tables himself? I think he might have just got his kicks out of blinding—what?—two, seven, nine, people!”
“Cynthia, I’m sure that guy’s faculty. He’s always at the colloquia.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t some psycho. Just look at Kaczynski.”
“Kaczynski lived in a hut in Montana.”
“Yes, but before that he was a professor at Michigan. Mister obsessed-with-pure-mathematical-truth-here-let-me-blow-your-fuckin-arm-off-for-you! My friend at Yale lost her ring finger to that Harvard bastard. Look, come with me. I wanna go and ask those engineer guys. The backpack man is freaking me out. I think he’s a dubious authority. I bet that gadget’s a video game. He’s probably watching little digital images of us groping around with outstretched arms.”
It’s a tense walk across the field in the middle of Campus Drive. It does seem to be getting darker.
“But maybe it was gonna get darker during this thirty minutes anyhow, Cynthia. Aside from the eclipse. Maybe it’s gonna rain. You know what the weather’s like around here.”
“Right, Tim! Take a good look at those seagulls over there—they’re probably the last fucking things we’ll ever see! Omigod! Blindness! It’s worse than death! You know, I respect those who can live with blindness, but me, if I’m blinded by this—by that sick bastard back there having a good laugh about making Gloucesters of us all—I’m gonna kill myself, I’ll tell you right now. I can’t live in a world of darkness. I wouldn’t be able to read. Life wouldn’t be worth living if you couldn’t read!”
She brushes aside my comments about progress in digital recording technology and audio books. We approach a cluster of giddied engineers. It’s been a successful show.
“Excuse me, excuse me! Are you guys engineers? Like, real engineers? Do you know if we could have injured our eyes watching the eclipse on a white plastic table? It was pretty bright. I think my eyes are hurting.” Amused by Cynthia’s queries, they ask her a few questions and dismiss her fears. We head down towards Circle Street. “Assholes. They didn’t even treat me seriously. Probably because I’m female. Typical fucking engineers. No human side. When they analyze people they do it with a slide rule and a set of algorithms! I’m sure I read somewhere about people damaging their sight doing what we did. What do you think of the sky? Is it the same or darker?”
“I’m not sure.”
We reach Circle. A streetcar rumbles towards us like an earthquake. Cynthia is alarmed.
“Omigod! I can’t even read the sign on the front of that streetcar! Can you read it?”
“Could you read it normally? Don’t you think you would be able to read it if your eyes were good? You have good vision, don’t you? I’ve never seen you wear glasses.” We stand at the streetcar stop and watch the streetcar approach. People are going about their business. Traffic is heavy. The streets are overflowing with life. The apocalypse seems like a chimera. The Day of the Triffids is not coming to Circle Street and Campus Drive. But Cynthia isn’t reassured. “We’ve got to find someone who can tell us for sure. Before it’s too late! At least we’re close to the hospital district. Just a sec—I’m gonna ask this girl if her eyes are hurting.”
She storms over to a student at a bus shelter who is looking at the sky. The streetcar pulls up and the door pishes open in front of me. Without really thinking about it, I climb the steps, slither a five into the bill reader, mosey down the aisle, and take a seat at the back. When the student shakes her off, Cynthia spins around and looks for me. She scans both sides of the street. Finally she peers into the streetcar windows. Our eyes meet just as the car is easing forward. Her head turns slightly to the side. I settle back into my seat, put on my shades, and wave.
Category: Short Story