At the time her mother fell down the stairs to her death in Toledo, Irene was far away in Pittsburgh, working in a lab. As her mother bounced down a flight of stairs in a bright city on the sparkling shore of Lake Erie, Irene sat in a dark room, in the basement of an ugly building, in a drab university, in an abandoned steel town. Irene's mother was named Bernice. They had not spoken to each other in years.
Irene pulled her lab coat around her and stared intently into a small glass window on a large metal apparatus. She wasn't thinking about her mother at all. In fact, all she was thinking about was her work. As her mother landed at the bottom of the stairs, arms and legs cracking, Irene concentrated only on recording the data from her machine. All of her recent days had been spent alone, just like this, compressed into the space in her own head. Yes, she had a boyfriend, a mother, a boss. But there was her and there was everything else. There was her and there was the world. She had a reason for this. It wasn't only vanity.
As her mother's limbs banged and broke and settled into place around her on the floor, Irene peered again into the window in the middle of her machine. It was as big as the whole room, and had the shape of an 8, made of bright metal. She leaned over it and looked down into it, where the two sides of the 8 connected. The machine buzzed under her hand. Inside, the little particles were whirring around. She was an astrophysicist, attempting to observe a black hole by exciting the particles in the machine. It was all she had been doing and trying and thinking about for months: proving that there are black holes all around us, and we have been walking through them all our lives. It was her work, and her entire focus was there.
In Toledo, Bernice's spinal fluid leaked into the tissue around her cervical vertebrae, and there was thick blood coming out her ear. In Pittsburgh, Irene concentrated on turning a little numbered dial, click by click. Although her eyes were heavy and she was tired, she would not quit.
She adjusted a different knob on the control panel and flicked a switch. She adjusted and peered, over and over. There are a lot of fractions between zero and one. There are a lot of sort-ofs between off and on. She had to test everything. For an almost innumerable number of failures, she had continued. She had to assume that this day would be no different, but she would carry on anyway.
Never once had she felt the desire to hit the machine, to jostle it, berate it. But she had considered what it would feel like to slide it gently into the water, where the two rivers of Pittsburgh converged, then jump in after it. She would ride it down to the sea, like a barrel over the falls. Then, sleeping peacefully, they would drift out on the waves. These things had occurred to her. She had stood for panting, tense minutes at the railing of the George Westinghouse Bridge, glaring down at the train tracks below, flanked by green, thinking of jumping.
In Toledo, her mother was finally dying, and one last breath came out. Irene did not know the fight her mother was having, right at that exact moment.
Outside Pittsburgh, there was a green forest to hike in, with rivers and bald eagles. Inside the city, there were buildings you could look at, visit, and enjoy. A funicular went up and down, up and down, but Irene had never been in it. Irene didn't care about all that. She just leaned over the experiment, her back bent. There are elements common to all cities. University laboratories, suicide bridges, small apartments to live in, boyfriends to have.
Irene kept her face steady, her eyes open, pointed at the machine. If she worked until her face melted into the detector, if her brain fell down into the path of the accelerator, if it was penetrated by pions and if a small black hole was created in her skull, then at least she would have finished all the data for this set. She blinked her eyes to wake herself up, clicked the knob, and peered into the machine, like every time before. But her mother had nothing left with which to blink herself awake. She could not stop.
Far away, her mother died.
And this time, when Irene looked into that little window, she saw something completely different. This time, even before her forehead pressed against the humming steel, she saw a tiny purple glow. A little bit of light came out the window she had been looking in. Light that had not been there before.
Her stomach dropped. Her brain woke up. She took a deep breath in, and she felt her heart tremble and thump against her ribs. The lab was perfectly quiet, a heavy door blocking out any sounds of the hallway. There was no window and no potted plant, no ticking clock, no stars marching across the firmament, no heavenly witnesses. Irene sat frozen, vibrating, the purple glow from the apparatus window lighting up her eyes. At that moment, she almost couldn't look. It was too much to take.
As the person who had been standing in the upstairs hallway in her mother's house came slowly down the stairs, step by step, toward the body, Irene pressed her face up to the experiment one final time in faith, opened her eyes wide, and stared at the evidence.
For the first time, it was there. More beautiful than she had ever imagined. A tiny pinprick in space, absorbing and draining particles, leaking radiation that came to her as light through the detector she had made. It flared up from a deep violet to the fiercest lavender and back again, the size of a speck of dust, as far as her human eye could tell. Her breath came faster. Her eyes did not want to pull away, did not want to leave the window, and the purple light bathed the sharp lines of her face, her pointed chin, tired eyelids, the pencil forgotten in her ear. Her finger pushed a button and recorded an image. Another image.
Then in a mist of lavender, it was gone. She blinked. Her heart surged and hurt against the back of her sternum. She felt prickles of adrenaline rippling down her limbs. Her hand reached into her lap and fished around in her lab coat, picked up a pencil. The hand felt the distance between the coils and the other edge of the notebook, felt its way halfway down the page, and then while her face was still glued to the machine, she wrote.
Irradiated Argon. Polarization 60%. Frequency 16 PHz. Wavelength 47nm. Visible Hawking radiation from possible black hole. Estimated mass, 1 ng. Estimated radius of anomaly, 0 nm. Estimated density, infinite. Halflife
She stopped writing. Had it lived for two breaths? Three seconds? Had she been watching for an hour? She leaned back over the machine and looked into the detector. The particles continued to whirr through the collider. Soon, there would be another one. Now she had no trouble staying awake.
One hour passed. Two hours more, and she was still looking. She saw one more, two more, but it was not enough for her. She was hungry for these results. Just one more, her brain said. Show me one more. Then I'll sleep. "More gas," her hand now wrote. A purer substrate. Try protons, for a perfect leptonic decay. The color of irises in spring.
When she finally pulled away from the machine, a visor shape was marked into the pale skin of her face by the pressure of her observation. She waved her hand through the air in front of her body and smiled.
Black holes had formed and decayed, without taking the universe or even Pittsburgh with them. Each left a puff of radiation, just like it was supposed to, and then was gone. A leak of energy that could be measured, documented, graphed, applied to paper, faxed, e-mailed, and reported to the world. The smallest collision, the smallest suction of mass into a singularity, the quickest fade, the sweetest moment of bright purple light in dissolution, like a shallow breath let out quickly. Because of her design, it had been visible. She had seen X-rays it emitted, like no one else on earth had ever done. All around the earth in space, these tiny collisions were happening all the time. Matter rippling like a puddle in a rainstorm. Irene felt better than she had ever felt in her entire life. If she had known a song, she might have sung it. If there had been someone there, she probably would have spoken to them in an elevated tone. She might have even let that person clasp her hand in congratulations.
Her phone rang.
She walked on stiff legs to her desk and picked up the phone from where she had set it down what seemed like years ago. A glance at the time surprised her. So much of it had passed. She slid the phone on and clicked to answer.
"Sparks," she said.
Irene was a small girl with a face like a trapezoid. Her smile, when it appeared, could have been called winning, but her voice was not charming. It grated, and was not pretty. At times, she cultivated this ugliness. She tried for a caustic manner. Small women have to do this, she had told herself often. It's bad enough I have to be short. At least I don't have to be cute.
"Irene? Is that you?" The voice on the phone had the unmistakable buttery tone of her mother's pastor.
"Hello, Father Allen," said Irene. Why was he calling? She had not talked to him since the last time her mother had an episode. Inside her happiness, a tiny speck of doubt took hold, spiraled around, and sent a plume of anxiety through her body.
"Honey," said Blake Allen, his voice sounding like a waterfall of olive oil. "Are you alone? Are you with someone?"
"Yes." She walked back over to the machine and leaned her face on the metal. It was cool on her forehead. She felt her breath start to come out fast. She felt the blood coursing through the arteries in her head. Something deep inside her chest sent out a little pain. Something bad was about to happen.
"Okay, Irene, I'm with your mom."
"Where is she?"
"She's here at home, Irene. I'm at her home right now, and I'm sorry, but she has passed away."
"What? What are you talking about?" This was not what Irene had expected him to say. Passed out, maybe. Past hope. But not away.
"I'm so, so sorry, Irene. I hate to have to tell you this. But she has passed."
"Where is she? Where are you?" Irene's voice scraped along her throat, tears starting up in her eyes.
"She's here in her home, and I'm with her. Honey, she appears to have fallen down the stairs."
"Are you sure she is dead? Did somebody really check? She can be—a deep sleeper," said Irene. Her tears were now making her face wet. Irene used her hand to swab her eyes. She used her lab coat, leaving a rumpled wet patch on it. She began to flick switches on the control panel, powering down, shutting everything off. She was thinking off, off, off as she clicked the metal switches.
"Yes, I'm sorry. It seems that—" Here he coughed. Blake Allen was pastor of the Unitarian Church. Her mother attended weekly, prayed with a prayer circle, knitted shawls for the bereaved. Of course, she also practiced palm reading, tarot, and other astrological divinations. The recitation of liturgy, the meditative chants, altar clothes, tie-dye with bells, a crystal ball, a chalice. All the accoutrements of firm belief. "It seems that the neighbor came by to see her. I guess they usually had afternoon tea together. Anyway, she found her."
"Are you telling me she's lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs?"
"Yes, but the coroner will take her away soon. I want you to know that I'm going to take care of whatever needs to be taken care of here. Don't worry about anything like that."
Irene paused. She felt like there was too much oxygen in the room. Her lungs just kept filling up and replenishing her oxygen supply and then going back, inexorably, for more oxygen. It was like the damn brooms at the well. She could see her mother, curled innocently on the floor next to the bottom step, one hand closed under her chin, one fist open, palm exposed, as if to say, "Come with me."
"Is she broken? Did she break—" Irene began to cough.
"We don't know the cause of death. She may have had a stroke at the top of the stairs, a heart attack, we just don't know."
There were times when her mother would say, I'm dying. I need to get a haircut and make a will. Irene would just roll her eyes at that. That was before Irene had said, I am leaving Toledo and I will never come back. I will never speak to you again.
"I'm so, so sorry. I know you and your mom were not close," said the rector.
"We were close," said Irene. She choked back a sob.
"Of course, of course. She spoke of you so often."
The rector said a few words to someone else in the room there in her mother's house in Toledo. She imagined him stepping nimbly over the corpse of her mother, trotting adroitly over to the front door, stepping out onto the porch. She could hear traffic sounds. He was probably wearing a bespoke suit. He was such a natty dresser.
"I don't want to come home," said Irene stupidly. She didn't know what else to say.
"Really?" Blake Allen wanted to know. "Your mother always said it was your dream to come back to Toledo."
Her dream was to come back to Toledo, and work at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy. But it was not something she could ever do while her mother was there, or while her experiment was unsuccessful. But now ...
"I don't—" Irene began.
"Irene, excuse me for one moment," said Blake Allen. He put his hand over the phone and Irene waited, listening to the silence on the line, feeling her heart tap against her ribs in an irregular rhythm. I need to sit down, she thought. I'm going to have a heart attack, too. I'm going to fall down some stairs.
"Irene, I've just talked to the coroner. From what he was able to determine, sweetie, there was no suffering in the end."
"Was she just tired or was she confused or was she—" Irene wanted to say drunk, but that was not something she would ever say out loud. Still, her mind would not comply: Was she blasted? Wasted? Hammered? Was she? Was she like, "Whee! Down we go!"
"Sweetie, we just don't know. We don't know. Listen, I need to speak to some people here that have just arrived. I will call you again later."
Irene turned the phone off and put it down. There was a dense, strange feeling in her chest, like the residual joy at having successfully observed results in her experiments had collided with the grotesque horror of having her mother die of a broken neck, and a black hole had been created in the center of her chest, sucking in all her feelings and her will. She began to cry. She sat down in her chair and put her hands in her lap, coughing and sobbing.
Does death always make you feel sad? What do you do when someone dies? What if the person was a terrible and unsolvable lifelong problem for you? What if the person was your mother?
Irene cried and cried, in spite of herself. Her mother had been a bad mother, yet she was sad anyway. She couldn't make the sadness stop, just because it was reasonable to feel relief. She tried to figure out what she would say to someone else in this situation. Maybe the years of awfulness dissolve, when a bad mother dies, so that all you really have to feel is sadness. Or maybe Irene would say to the person, "I'm sorry for your loss," and that would be the end of it.
Exhausted from her tears, Irene finally looked up and saw her gleaming machine. She remembered the good thing that had happened to her, and what she must now do. Then she gathered her backpack and keys and went outside the lab and up the stairs. She did not fall. She did not die. She locked the door.
Outside, she saw it was midafternoon. The blue autumn sky seemed to hover just above the colorless buildings. The breeze felt cool but there was warmth radiating off the pavement all around. She felt sure it was a Monday. A rumbling of shouts came from the stadium, and she knew there was a sports practice going on there. A group of men shouting rhythmically as they ran forward, sideways, backward, or hunched in squats. Irene opened her phone and placed a call to the Toledo Institute of Astronomy. On the phone, her tone was full of spirit.
Copyright © 2014 by Lydia Netzer