Think of humans staring into a fire, he once told her. One can sit all
night, under the clear stars, far north in the crisp, removed air, gazing at
flames and sparks as they scintillate, borne unimaginably from the glowing
coals below. Humans tend toward boredom, he said, and yet they find
themselves drawn into a mere, flickering fire, watching until it burns down
and every trace of orange has turned to gray.
We developed this ineluctable attraction, he went on, eyebrows high, hands
poised outward, through the obscure mechanics of the achingly gradual
adaptation called evolution. Proto-men and -women who were drawn
inexplicably to fire survived with more frequency than those who saw only
its utility. They got through freezing desert nights, northern snowswept
winters, warm evenings on the plains surrounded by nocturnal predators, by
embracing with an almost existential hope heat's visual manifestation. Those
who were less likely to gather around the fire because it did not activate
this strange combination of neurons in their paleolithic brains were more
likely to be picked off by leopards and fanatic members of other clans, and
more likely to succumb to the exhausting infusion of cold into one's core.
And more significantly, though much less tangibly, they seemed to lack the
primitive equivalents of love, of hope, of a reason to live beyond the
mandates of instinct.
And from this -- this, he conveyed with a now magnificent absorption in his
sprawling theory -- comes the indescribable feeling of visual rapture. We have
always been terribly confused about whence come the internal cogs that lead
us to be compelled by nature's conflagrations of color, about what besides
awe leads us to be taken aback by the orangeness of the Grand Canyon and of
the sunset, by the hue and contrast of bright green grass. It seemed to him,
he said, that it is the overpowering evolutionary advantage of a fascination
with fire that births in us all the characteristics, the synaptic ins and
outs, that allow our eyes to appreciate, in some deeper way, what we think
of as beauty.
He had this theory about the luminescent, she said, she knew. He had told
her like a trillion times before.
Of all professions, the teacher mused, astrophysicists must die the most
peacefully. For however cognizant we all are of our cosmic insignificance,
the scientist of the stars breathes it every day and has constructed his
life, not so different from ours, in a way befitting it. His home and wife
and happiness are all always contingent and gifts, when our own we keep
grasping at as if they're rights, entitlements. If our deaths are bitter for
leaving behind what is good, his is the more sweet for the knowledge of the
time he had. The astrophysicist's Earth is a Paradise, the teacher murmured,
now sitting on his desk with his hands on his thighs. Every day is a bright,
shining gift, and think how many he has!
Think of when you are high up, Michael told his half-brother, both their
forearms spread along the rusty wrought-iron fence that bloomed along the
uneven concrete ledge. You want to spit. At first, you do not want to be
seen, he said, because there are almost certainly signs against it. Soon
enough, though, your friends have given in and you, too, glance behind you before summoning a glob to send down, floating and frolicking in the air.
His half-brother looked at him.
And as the thing wafts, Michael said, you get this unimpeachable pleasure,
over and beyond what you had expected. Because you understand that you've
just let this piece of you go and it is both separate and still you, having
this freewheeling, airborne experience your body could never have. The mucus
stays in the air for ten, twelve seconds before it disappears into the dust.
I'm telling you, he said, taking off his faded baseball cap, rubbing his
near-bald head. That's what having a kid is like.
His half-brother's eyes flickered to the northwest side of his brain.
Think of the tallest thing you can think of, Michael went on. The Empire
State Building. Think of the moon. You spit down on the earth from the moon,
and you see this little speck recede into the distance and you know it is
going to exist, this miniscule part of you, for a lot longer than you will,
and that it's going to be a piece of the universe even when you are not.
And you get in your spaceship and fly back down to earth -- work with me here,
he said, tipping his cap to the city lights that spread out before them -- and
you look up at the sky and there is this flame tearing through the
atmosphere. People are looking up at it and saying, Jesus, it's beautiful.
Meteorologists are stunned because it looks like it's going to land in just
the right place to hold off global warming for a few more years. And it
breaks through and stops flaming and at once you see, and everybody else
sees, this thing has your name plastered on it, in massive letters right
across the front.
Michael paused. His half-brother squinted into the wind.
People around you, he said, have these peaceful, kind of yogic smiles on
their faces as it finds a landing spot. And as it settles into the earth,
this immense feeling of warmth comes over you. As you hear the crinkle of
rocks falling from the side of the huge crater it has made, you're standing
there, and you're feeling -- you're feeling somehow home. And it's good. It's
not even great. It's simply, unequivocally, good.
And you can't help yourself but be happy. You can't help yourself, because
then, that's all there is.
His half-brother was nodding, his eyes set on the city's pointillist glow.