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Zenith


ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

At half past one Dr. Charles Bolton flipped off his electronic typewriter and tamped together the pages of manuscript that lay on his desk. His arthritic left knee cracked as he got up to turn off the air conditioner. When he opened the door of the study, the stale warm air in the back hall—it smelled like heated cardboard—made him pause on the threshold. But even the unseasonable temperature—85 degrees in late September—could not justify retreat. His article on Hawthorne’s treatment of darkness had reached its crux, and if he were to view the precious manuscript that his friend Roger Frampton had promised to exhume, he would have to present himself at the Boston Athenaeum at half past three.

In the kitchen his wife was attacking a bowlful of raw carrots and celery with vicious strokes of the chopper. Margaret Bolton did not welcome what she called “rattle-pated chatter” during culinary chores, and since the kitchen had no air conditioner, her mood made it wiser to leave her undisturbed. Professor Bolton tiptoed in with a plate, on which he cobbled together a cold snack from the leftover shelf of the refrigerator. He punched on the burner under the coffee pot and took his plate to the kitchen table.

The rhythm of chopping slowed, then halted. Margaret’s forehead was beaded with sweat, “What time is it, Charles?”

“Twenty minutes to two.”

“The light is terribly bright,” she said. “I’ve never known it like this in September. It hurts my eyes just to look out the window.”

Bolton got up and opened the casement. Looking down into the street, he noticed that the shiny leaves of the copper beech near the front door scarcely stirred and that the shadows under the tree had failed to lengthen across the sidewalk. He glanced at his digital watch and poked the button that flashed the date: September 27. The autumnal equinox had passed five days ago. How could the sun be directly overhead at this hour? Had the micro-chip battery of the watch gone haywire?

When he held it to his ear, he heard the usual whispers of fleeting time. “Maybe we’re crazy with the heat,” he said.

“Speak for yourself, Charles.”

This irritated him. “What we need, Margaret”—he rolled the phrase on his tongue—”is a Wagnerian electrical display, a Götterdämmerung with instant thunderbolts. Or a storm like King Lear’s.”

His wife shuddered as he had known she would. “How can you be so beastly, Charles? You know how I hate thunderstorms.”

When Dr. Bolton dialed the time woman, the neutrally accented voice of bureaucracy confirmed the precision of his watch. “It’s terribly bright for this hour,” he said. Then he realized he was talking to a black box buried in the cellar of the telephone building.

“You mustn’t miss your bus.” Mrs. Bolton said.

The professor planted a contrite peck on his wife’s hot forehead. He struggled into his seersucker jacket (at the Athenaeum shirt sleeves would be unthinkable), clapped on his Panama hat, and hurried to the front door. The air in the street hit him like a blow in the face. Slinging the jacket over his shoulder, he trudged along the sidewalk to Harvard Square. At the bus stop he mustered the courage to look up at the sky. No cloud in sight—and no blue—only a steel-white dome, with a ghost of the gibbous moon palely loitering above the eastern horizon. The sun itself was too bright for more than the briefest glance, but Dr. Bolton had the impression—absurd though he found it—that it hadn’t budged since he looked out the window at lunchtime.

The windows of the bus were wide open. The driver did not acknowledge Bolton’s remark about the light, only chomped on his gum as he listened to the shower of coins in the fare box. But vague signs of disquiet appeared on the shiny black face when a skinny girl in blue jeans with a long pigtail said, “Is it always so bright at this hour in New England?”

“Never seen it like this,” the driver said. “Not even back home in Haiti. And now the air conditioning, she’s conked out on me.”

He zoomed his motor, and with the brakes fitfully wheezing, he worked the bus into the traffic, cringing against the glare that poured through the untinted half of the windshield.

Near the Western Avenue Bridge, a heavy woman in a short dress, with horizontal stripes straining over her buttocks, waved her shopping bag, and the bus halted. She dropped into a seat beside Dr. Bolton, streaking a beefy arm across her brow. “Ye gods,” she said. “I’m burning up. I can’t even see straight. Ye gads, ye gods!”

On the Mass Avenue Bridge, the currents of hot air swirling through the bus swallowed up any trace of cool from the river. Bolton counted only five sailboats in the basin; their sails flapped as they luffed in search of a breeze. A handful of cyclists pumped languidly along the paths beside the lagoon, but the sunbathers had quit the docks. Pedestrians who usually went about half-naked in hot weather had pulled on shirts and wore their caps over their eyes. Their bodies dragged along after their heads, as if a wizard’s spell had turned their feet to lead.

When he got off on Beacon Hill, men and women were filing in and out of the arcades of the State House like automatons on a clock tower. They spoke in hushed voices, peering tentatively from under the arches. Light and heat, Dr. Bolton thought, had blunted the spurs of agitation; like him, they were waiting for explanation from some authority familiar with the glitches of the solar system.

He ducked into the Athenaeum and put on his jacket. Beyond the vestibule, the air was cool, as in a cave, and musty with the comforting smell of old paper and ink and bindings. He mounted in the growling elevator to the second floor and climbed to the gallery, where he found Professor Frampton slumped down on a stool, pressing the back of his head against the cold metal of one of the stacks.

Ave, ave, Roger. What the hell is going on out there—or should I say up there? Atomic cataclysm? Greenhouse? Fossil fuel?”

Roger Frampton, who saw himself as a Renaissance man, gave a resume of the theories of astronomers Croll and Maunder about sunspots and eccentricities in the earth’s orbit. “But that doesn’t explain a day like this.” He sighed. “Mother Nature’s lost her grip.”

“Or found it maybe.” A phrase from the Old Testament passed through Charles Bolton’s mind: “Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon.” But he felt squeamish about uttering in Frampton’s presence anything so pre-Copernican. Instead he asked, “Did you call the Weather Bureau?”

“Nothing from the pundits, Charles. All I got was the busy signal.”

“So be it. Now how about a look at the manuscript?”

“The manuscript? Oh, all right.” But Frampton sounded dubious, almost resentful, as though in the midst of a shipwreck some passenger had requested a second helping of caviar. He disappeared down the narrow corridor of the stacks, leaving Bolton to pace the gallery, at the end of which hung the portrait of Washington Allston. The painter’s eyes seemed to follow him, plumbing the depths of his uneasiness. Through the back window he could see the mossy stones of the Granary Burying Ground and the clock of the Park Street Church, which read quarter of four.

Frampton popped out of the stacks. He held his head rigid above his scrawny neck. “Everyone’s left early,” he said. “And I’ve no idea where they’ve stashed the Hawthorne papers.”

Dr. Bolton could hardly conceal his relief. “Let’s call it a day.”

“Yes, yes, yes. Better get out of here. I don’t like the look of things, Charles. Or the feel. Better go home, I guess.”

The blast of heat and the crowd, homeward bound, that oozed down Beacon Hill like lava, sharpened the sense of disaster. Policemen whistled as they tried to untangle three lines of traffic that had jammed themselves into two lanes. No one honked today: Bolton could even hear the shouts of a young rookie halfway down the hill. “Go home, get out of the streets. Go home”—over and over like a parrot. No point in trying for a bus. But as he neared the bottom of the long slope, with Dr. Frampton tagging along beside him, Doctor Bolton asked an older cop about the subway. Blinking his bloodshot eyes, the officer denied any defection on the Red Line. Bolton quailed before the man’s vehemence; he hadn’t meant to impugn the honor of the municipality.

The two men turned into Charles Street and set off toward the Longfellow Bridge, where the subway comes rushing up from under ground to cross the river. The stream of pedestrians was turning into a torrent as tributaries poured in from side streets. A moving van, unable to turn in from Pinckney, had stopped athwart the one-way traffic, damming it up for blocks. The driver hopped down from the cab, abandoning his truck. Other drivers followed suit; doors slammed all down the street in an arrhythmic burst, and when engines died, the silence was broken only by hushed voices and shuffling feet. No one pushed or jostled now. Dr. Bolton saw himself as part of a procession of lemmings, moving meekly and in good order toward some unknown and unnameable precipice.

As they neared the river, he discovered that Professor Frampton had vanished. He had melted into the crowd that pressed on toward the embankments. A line of gulls passed overhead, sobbing and screaming at the disruption that had set them into flight. Bolton’s digital watch now read half past five, but no color stained the western sky and no shadow fell on the sodden asphalt between the buildings. When he looked up, he saw only a white-hot disk above him. Wincing, he shut his eyes, and the blackness flashed with dancing dots and meteors of red and blue. He remembered the fat woman in the bus. “Ye gads. Ye gods,” he muttered.

Ducking into a telephone enclave, he dialed his wife. The phone still rang, but Margaret had bad news. “They’ve turned off the water. The faucets are hawking and spitting.” She sounded strangely calm, none of her usual brusqueness. “Cold supper tonight. How we can do the dishes I really do not see. But where are you, Charles?”

Just then the receiver gave a loud squawk. He inserted another quarter. It produced a leaden clunk, and then silence.

The crowds had bypassed the subway station on their way down the river. There was no one in the token booth. Knees cracking, Dr. Bolton slithered under the turnstile. Halfway up the stairs, he was relieved to hear a train come roaring out of the tunnel. The doors were sliding shut when he reached the platform, and the rubber jaws clamped onto the tail end of his jacket as he wormed his way inside. He tore it free with a shrieking of cloth.

A girl in blue jeans offered him her seat. The intimacy of her smile frightened him, and then he recognized her: she was the one who had asked the Haitian bus driver about the bright light. He wanted to escape from her, but he managed a thank-you and dropped onto the metal bench. She whispered that she was getting off at Kendall.

The hush in the car was broken only by the whining of wheels as the train ground its way over the hump of the bridge. Bolton caught a glimpse of hundreds of people on the boat docks, dangling their legs in the muddy river like angleworms, and then the train plunged again into blackness. It streaked on without stopping at Kendall or Central. The girl gave him a knowing grin as she swayed above him, clinging to the metal loop. At Harvard Square the brakes screamed and the train shuddered to a halt. The doors rumbled open; an instant later the lights flickered and went out. A sigh swept through the car, followed by bursts of high-pitched laughter.

Would the engineer desert his train? If only it would continue headlong to its terminus, it would take hours to walk back home. The prospect was oddly welcome. Other passengers rustled by him in the dark, but Dr. Bolton sat back and waited.

No light came and no motion. Finally he groped his way through the door and along the familiar platform till he saw a faint gleam from the Church Street exit. The stairs were crammed with passengers, so he mounted the immobilized escalator. At the top a black-bearded policeman, with his cap over his eyes and brandishing a nickel-plated revolver, barred the way. Above the mouth of the exit the plaque of sky shone like steel.

“You can’t go out there,” the policeman said.

“My wife is waiting for me at home.”

“You gotta stay here, man. Sun’11 burn you up.”

The officer’s voice was deep and vibrant. When he pushed back his cap, his thick, black beard and aquiline features struck a familiar chord. Bolton had encountered the same profile of kingly ferocity among the Hebrew patriarchs who people the canvases of Rouault. Grappling with memories of the Old Testament for the second time that day, he had the strange conviction that he and the cop had somehow tuned in on the same wave length.

“I’m not saying this to everyone,” the man growled, “but there’s no trains moving either way beyond here. Current’s dead; tracks are safe as houses. If you was to walk on them to Porter Square, no one would keep you there. By that time I reckon the Lord will be getting things on the move again.”

“You mean the earth will start turning, don’t you?”

“I mean the sun and the moon.”

Dr. Bolton gave a start; clouds cleared from his memory.

“”The sun stood still,” “—this time he said it aloud—” “and the moon stayed until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.”“

The cop’s deep-circled eyes fixed him, stopping just short of a wink, and then he pulled down his visor.

At the bottom of the escalator, a faint glimmer of daylight from the exit guided Dr. Bolton to the edge of the platform. Cautiously he lowered himself onto the tracks, steering clear of the third rail, just in case. Beyond the steel plates, when he reached the wooden ties, he assimilated the rhythm of their spacing until he could quicken his pace. This is the way the blind have to move, he thought; it’s really not all that hard.

The air got cooler; the darkness restored his faith in the alternations of the natural order. Hope stirred in him: perhaps when he emerged at the end of his subterranean trek, twilight would be deepening over the city. Gentler defenses against night would again twinkle from street lamps and headlights and from shuttered windows. So he moved steadily onward into the welcome dark.

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