John A. McDermott, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas where he teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University and coordinates the BFA program in creative writing. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Florida Review, Juked, Seneca Review, Treehouse, and elsewhere.
The Hole in Orion’s Belt
When I returned from the week spent consoling my mother, burying my father, and organizing his belongings, the only mementos of him I brought back were a trio of oversized wool suits, a pair of brown shoes that needed polish, and a brown leather belt, much too big for me. My father’s waist was wide. These were things I didn’t need and would never use, but my mother insisted I have. I wasn’t really ready to start taking Dad out of her house, but I guess she was.
She thrust them at me, the suits in a 1970s Samsonite and the shoes stuffed into a brown paper grocery bag, the scuffed tips jutting beyond the serrated lip the way stalks of celery and bottles of wine may have weeks earlier. She made me promise I’d use them. They were my father’s best clothes, but it would be decades, if ever, before I could fit into them and even then, I would have to eat more, much more, if his forty-six inch waist was my goal.
They sat in the back seat of my sedan, slouched and lumpy like a sullen child, while I drove from Milwaukee back to Madison. I tilted the rear-view mirror so I didn’t see the bulging bag or the suitcase beneath the back window.
The night was clear, traffic light, the February deep freeze keeping most people at home. Rounding the curves of Lincoln Memorial Drive, I watched black water slap the shore, Lake Michigan’s waves white-tipped in the moonlight. Hot air blew from the dashboard vents. Downtown lights burned the sky and it was only traveling beyond the suburbs I could see stars, stuck, gleaming shards above me. I rested my left hand against the window, the cold glass smooth beneath my skin. I-94 was nearly deserted and I could safely look at the sky, the only other car two red dots in the distance. I recognized some of the constellations, though not many. Cassiopeia. Ursa Major. The brightest star in Orion, Rigel. I turned off the radio and drove, glancing up occasionally as if I were tracking my position against the sky and not the green mileage signs on the right side of the road. I felt like an old-time sailor.
And then the center star of Orion’s Belt went out. While I was hurtling somewhere between Johnson Creek and Sun Prairie, home still more than thirty miles away, the sky went black in one familiar spot.
“Like somebody hit a switch?” my wife Janelle asked later. She wanted me to describe it. We talked in our kitchen, over the clean table. I didn’t have much to say about the days with Mom, about packing up Dad’s things for St. Vincent’s, about hearing his voice in the house and knowing it was just in my head, about smelling him everywhere, in every corner of every crowded room, even the rooms he didn’t like much, like my old room. They never did figure out what to do with it after I left. It lacked…something. I didn’t have much to say about that. But Janelle asked about the star and I could tell her.
“Yeah,” I said. “It vanished just like that. Click. Somebody hit a switch.” And it was gone.
The world learned more about Orion’s Belt in the next seventy-two hours than I’d imagined there was to know. The star’s name—the missing star—was Alnilam, Arabic for “the string of pearls.” Alnilam had been a blue supergiant, ten thousand times more luminous than the Sun. I heard that from a middle-aged MIT professor interviewed by a CNN reporter. I paused in the doorway to the living room, a basket of clean laundry in my arms. Janelle was on the couch eating toast, absorbed in it all, every “Star Crisis” update. She thought I was bizarre for not gluing myself to the TV, for doing the dishes and making the bed. The entire country was more enthralled than a national election, than a Super Bowl, she told me. I shrugged and leaned against the doorjamb and watched the man talk. He was Asian, gaunt but healthy, smiling. I could feel warm t-shirts, stacked in a folded pile, against my chest.
“And though the three stars of Orion’s Belt seem to stretch in a line,” another professor began, this time a young woman with glasses, “they don’t.”
“Didn’t,” the stern, concerned reporter corrected.
“Yes, of course,” the woman said, pushing her glasses to the bridge of her nose, nodding her head. “Didn’t.” The camera lingered on the first professor, his lips tightening. In theory, disappearing stars seemed neat. In actuality, they were unnerving. I wondered what was in the coffee mugs that both professors were sipping. Maybe they hid bourbon. Janelle ate cheese puffs from the bag.
Of the trio, Alnilam was actually the furthest away from earth, thirteen hundred light years from Moscow and Milwaukee alike, while its bookends—Mintaka to the west and Alnitak to the east—were only 900 hundred and 800 hundred light years away. I noticed the only in that scientist’s sentence. Only. Of course, whether you’re 900 or 1300 light years away seemed the same to me. Impossible to reach is impossible to reach. Gone is gone; every kid learns that with floating goldfish and stiff gerbils.
“Alnilam’s gone,” I said to Janelle, “and all these talking heads aren’t going to get it back.”
“But maybe they’ll figure out where it went. Or why, at least.” She shrugged.
“Maybe,” I said.
She ate more puffs and the bright orange dye stained her lips.
Two days later I was putting away another load of laundry. It seemed I was going through more clothes, Janelle less. I was working out a lot, some days for several hours, and dirtying every pair of underwear and white socks I had. Janelle wore the same jeans from day to day. Tucking away a sweater in our bedroom closet, I saw my father’s suit squeezed in on the far end of the metal rack. I’d stuck it there, next to my only other suit, a gray one I’d worn to his funeral but otherwise ignored. The brown shoes sat on the dusty floor, between a battered pair of high-top tennies and Janelle’s least-favorite slippers. The enormous belt hung beneath my bathrobe, a snaky leather divider that ran the length of the hollow-core door. I could hear the television in the living room, astronomers strident as fashion critics. Janelle was blowing her nose. Her eyes were red now; she cried more than before.
The scientist said: yes, Alnilam was an old star, well into the late stages of its evolution, even near the end of its lifespan, but this, this sudden poof, gone, we didn’t expect. Stars went through phases, recognizable states. We should have seen this coming, he said. We should have been able to clock its departure with some accuracy. It wasn’t supposed to leave us like this.
But it did, I thought. Deal with it.
Janelle honked into her tissue.
Within a week of the star’s disappearance a religious cult in southern Indiana declared it a sign from heaven. They claimed Mintaka and Alnitak were “the Eyes of God” and began a pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the world, a group in Pakistan blamed NASA for the fresh black gap and announced that Allah was angry with Western vice. Both groups made the network news. But, oddly, they didn’t seem to frighten anyone. Janelle found them comforting, like a rerun. She said they were so predictably nuts, a staple of every world crisis, they were a sign that things were really very normal. Even the anchors grinned when they reported on the Hoosiers’ progress—walking, only at night—all the way to California.
My father had lived in San Diego before the Second World War. The city had changed, he often told me, grown up a lot after he left. It used to be perfect, he’d said. He told me stories. I’d never been to California, but that wasn’t why it was hard to picture my father, young, slim, on an empty beach. Sometimes I tried to start the stories again for Janelle, but they never seemed real. They seemed preposterous, so long ago, stories from another man who couldn’t have been the father I knew.
The scientific community, befuddled, stuttered and struggled to accept what everyone in the world saw nightly. “Stars don’t just vanish,” said a widely-quoted Palo Alto researcher. (The headline echoed in several national papers: STARS DON’T JUST VANISH EXPERT SAYS.) “We see them go through stages. There was no sign that Alnilam was transforming or going through a shift of some sort. It’s as if someone just reached out and snatched it from the sky.”
Janelle said she wished she’d seen it go. I’d seen it, but didn’t dwell. I didn’t need to think about the cosmos if everybody else was stuck on it. And Janelle had always been more aware of the sky. She was the one who’d taught me that those three stars were Orion’s Belt in the first place, right after we were married. There’d been a football field by our first apartment and on summer nights we would walk to the fifty-yard line and stop, our chins up. My attention followed Janelle’s raised arm as she pointed out the constellations, brilliant dabs from some calligrapher’s pen. We both stood, sweating and slapping mosquitoes, connecting the dots and smiling.
Three weeks passed and then everyone tired of thinking about the sky. The world suffered from Alnilam-fatigue. As great as it had been, for centuries, the star’s absence didn’t make that much difference. Life went on. There didn’t seem to be less of either good or evil in the world. Muggers mugged, nurses nursed. Even the scientists seemed a little tired of the topic. MIT had to move on. There were bound to be other things happening, even in the sky. Maybe especially in the sky.
I came home one night and found Janelle had unmoored from the living room. The television was on, but she wasn’t watching. She was working in the kitchen, defrosting the freezer. Pans of hot water sat in a snowy ring on the upper shelf. Short, raggedy towels were spread out on the checked linoleum floor. Janelle stood in front of the open door, stabbing at thick slabs of ice.
“You shouldn’t do that,” I said, still in my winter coat and watchman’s cap.
“What?” She kept digging, thin white shavings fluttering into the water pans and onto her sweatshirt sleeves.
“Dig with the pick. You could mess up the whole thing. Puncture the coils or something.”
“You’re an expert on refrigerators?”
“It’s what I’ve been told.” I held a can of orange juice concentrate in one hand and jiggled my car keys in the other. I’d only ducked out to fill up the tank and buy the juice for breakfast.
“It’ll take forever if I don’t help it along,” she said with a short jab.
“What’s the rush?”
She turned and pointed the metal tip at the mound of frozen food on the counter and spilling over the sides of our plastic cooler, bags of peas and corn, cellophane-wrapped ground beef, frost-covered cod fillets. “You want to waste all that?”
“Why can’t we put it in the car? It’ll keep.”
Janelle set the pick down on the counter and picked up the fish. She faced me, kissed me, handed me the cod, and patted my hands. “That’s why I married you,” she said.
It took me three trips. Janelle was going to help, but I told her she didn’t have to. She went to take a bath, soak in the tub. It was a good sign. She hadn’t done that in a while. Our bathroom was yellow and blue, very sunny. Held on to heat well. And no newscasts. No radio at all.
I shut the trunk on the last load and looked to our apartment building. Ours was smack in the middle of the second floor. It looked like everyone in every apartment was home; so many lit windows. The Kellys. The Mitchells. Our living room, bedroom, bathroom. Above the building, the sky was overcast, the moon nearly full but hidden by gauzy clouds. I sat on the trunk and sucked in the cold air. It seared for a moment, then softened, like cold water after a hard July run. It sort of hurt, but I wanted more.
The parking lot was quiet, far enough from the street for traffic to be muffled. Another breath and I fingered the keys in my jacket, about to go in, and our bedroom light went out, click, just like that. I supposed Janelle was going from the bedroom to the bath, probably wrapped up in her bathrobe and carrying a magazine. She liked to read in the tub. And it shouldn’t have thrown me, but it did. Three windows in a row. Light, black, light.
I sat on the hard edge of our car and wept. The tears hurt. It was too cold to cry outside, my cheeks chapped, but I didn’t want to move. I looked at that dark window and then up at the sky and just sat there, breathing and holding my keys. I sat there until I heard somebody walking across the lot toward the dumpster, probably with a big bag of trash, but I didn’t look. I went inside.
Janelle was still in the bathroom, the fan whirring behind the closed door the only noise. The television was off. I hung my winter jacket in the hall closet, then checked on the fridge. Water was spilling over the drip pans and the towels were damp, but that always happened. I put on the kettle for a cup of instant coffee and set the mug down on the counter, next to the ice pick. It was an old ice pick, with a faded wooden handle and a tarnished blade. I couldn’t remember where we got it. A hand-me-down from Janelle’s parents or mine.
I picked it up and walked into the bedroom, flipping on the switch with more thought than usual. In our room, I could hear the upstairs neighbors, heels clicking, the television mumbling. I opened the closet door and tossed my bathrobe on the bed, plucked the belt off the hook and sat down next to my robe. I could hear Janelle splashing and humming over the fan.
I gripped the ice pick in one hand, the handle smooth from a hundred earlier hands, and held the belt taut with the other, the far end tucked between my legs. I started out poking gingerly at the thick leather, but that didn’t get me anywhere. I had to jab the hide, prod, wheedle the sharp end of the pick against the grain. I wrestled that belt, made small thrusts, then more, a little fiercer, until it finally went through all the way.
The new hole was tiny, too narrow to buckle. I jostled the edges, cleaned it out, expanded it, then tossed the pick on the coverlet. I held the belt to the overhead light, both arms up, the ceiling beige above me, and looked through the jagged tear. It wasn’t big, but it was light, light right through the hole I made. I stood up and wrapped the belt around my waist. I cinched it and left the end to dangle.
I heard the neighbors shout, running, click-click on the floor above me. Their TV grew louder. Quick words and applause. There was a sudden buzz about the building. A shout and a laugh came up from the parking lot, where chatter from a car’s radio bubbled beneath two cheers, a man and a woman’s. “It’s back,” someone shouted. “It’s back.”
And then there was Janelle standing in the doorway, a small smile, all wet hair and white towel and scrubbed limbs. Tell me, she said, or perhaps she didn’t. Maybe it was simply in her eyes, her eyes clear and kind, as she sat with me on the edge of the bed. Tell me about your father’s California.