My dog Rocky—“Our Gang” comedy-looking pit bull mutt—is an idiot but he’s good at catching possums. Or he was before his hind leg gave out. Even now, though, every couple of months I’ll go out on the backyard deck in the morning, bend to dispense his pint-mug measure of Science Diet, note his slow and strangely patient panting and become aware of another off to the side as gray and weathered as the pressure-treated lumber, tongue hanging out, little Xs for eyes. Where do they come from? Why do they pass this way at all? They do not learn. Or it doesn’t matter. In his prime he might get two or three a week—not counting all those little pink ones tossed like seeds from nursing females. I have one of those, from June 2005 the label says, curled up in a little jar of alcohol. They’re shadows till he grabs them. Then they’re real for a second or two. Then shadows again.
When I moved here with my daughters, ten and twelve, my teenage son and a couple of floppy, friendly dogs oblivious to possums, it was hard. For the girls especially. So uneasy. Families break up for such subtle, imperceptible sorts of reasons. My wife Jean—dark, pretty, thoughtful, sad and distant—always said we live too long. We’re not designed to just keep going. We’re supposed to get run over by a mastodon or something long before the conversation starts to slip. One day I picked them up from school and brought them home to a different house. You can’t explain it. You place flowers in their rooms—the girls’ rooms down a narrow hall at the very back of one of those early fifties houses built out here on the post-war grid as life returned, spread out and settled onto the surface where the cotton used to grow. And you still sense it. Forty or fifty years later, you’re still able to feel that thin necessity. The sudden, somehow incomplete transition. How the simple, low-roofed, rectalinear neighborhoods retain an almost agricultural feeling of exposure and fragility. The flowers weren’t much help. Nor my suggestion, quite sincere, that neighborhoods like these provide perhaps the last clear manifestation of the colonizing spirit—and, besides, we had a shopping center they could ride their bikes to. And I used to hang out here myself, had friends who lived out here when I was in high school. I can show you where they lived and tell you stories, cannot stop myself no matter how you roll your eyes and wish things could return to the way they were. Our lives had sort of sifted out, or had been sectioned, cut across at a certain level and exposed to the air. And everything was sensitive, reluctant to be touched.
So maybe that first night I’d tell them bedtime stories like I used to. They’d make fun but what the hell. That’s what you need out on the prairie, on your own beneath the empty sky. It’s what comes naturally, after all—the endless, animal-populated tales of deep, uncertain meaning. Even John, at seventeen, could be amused. The girls—Elizabeth, the older one, and Anna—would object, think me too jolly for the circumstances. Yet I would persist. They seemed so isolated down there at their own end of the house. In their peninsular little bedrooms looking out through curtainless windows into the backyard, toward the alley where the unfamiliarity lay dark and undisturbed. You can’t just say good night. Well, here we are at the edge of the known world. Off you go. Sweet dreams. You need a story. You need deep, uncertain meanings—rabbit, fox and bear to come and act them out, to hover over like a mist above the cotton fields. Or maybe Mr. Possum. Than whom, I’m convinced, there is no deeper, more uncertain animal.
Did you know astronomers actually used to ride inside the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mt. Palomar? And maybe they still do from time to time, although I doubt it. I imagine it’s all remotely monitored now. But they used to.
You know how things get sectioned for analysis. It’s how you see what’s really going on inside a specimen, of course. A tissue sample, meteorite, whatever: Slice it, magnify it and the operating structures come to light. It is destructive but it works, reducing everything to level, common terms. It pulls the curtain back. Oh, Lizzy. Such a lonely little room back there. I know. And Anna’s too, but especially yours. It broke my heart. All by yourself down there at the end where you could see straight out across the dark backyard, across the fences and the other dark backyards, the cold, eternal, light-years-distant gleam of backyard security lights. But here’s exactly where the operating structures are revealed (I think at that point more to my delight than yours). Exactly how things are discovered that you didn’t know were there.
Had I begun to tell a story? Had I been to John’s room first, then Anna’s, sat by each a moment, done my best and been dismissed? It’s only Dad. It’s what he does—makes light of everything. Well, everything is light now isn’t it, Lizzy? “No,” you’d shake your head. And I’d bend closer imitating Homer Simpson imitating wisdom: “Isn’t it, Lizzy? Isn’t it?” “No.” Had I begun to tell the tale? “Once there was something …” I don’t know. I can’t remember. I remember how the shadows on the wall became the story. Something moved. Once there was something like the shadow of a possum. Then it moved. Well, look at that. We never had a magic lantern show before. Look how he creeps along the shadow of the fence. He’s out there somewhere, isn’t he Lizzy? And we’re looking back and forth between the shadow and the window but there’s nothing to be seen directly out there in the dark except the backyard lights, of which the nearest seems to cast the shadow. I go over to the window, kneel to bring my eye to intercept the line between the shadow of the possum and the light. It’s one of those mercury-vapor lights, I think. That cold, discouraging light that hardly ever needs replacement, burns forever behind the garage and in the interstitial regions where one hardly ever goes. I move my head a little, side to side, to try to find the possum. There’s the fence line. Where’s the possum? He should be right there. His shadow hasn’t moved. I move a little, keep the light above the fence. There. Now he’s moving. It’s an astronomical moment. There. The mercury-vapor light dims, brightens, dims. It is a complex occultation. He’s an inference like those extra-solar planets they detect by noting subtle, regular dimmings of their stars. One cannot know these things directly. One requires the proper instrument. The meditating principle.
Did you know astronomers actually used to ride inside the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mt. Palomar? And maybe they still do from time to time, although I doubt it. I imagine it’s all remotely monitored now. But they used to. They would ride all night up there at the top in the “prime focus cage”—a cylindrical room they fit behind the secondary mirrors at the point, eighty feet or so above the floor, where all the light from the primary mirror came to its first and purest, widest-field and deepest-gazing convergence. There were other, smaller mirrors—complex sequences, in fact—that they could introduce to redirect the light wherever they wished including, down at the end of a billiards-trick-shot series of reflections, into the temperature-stable Coudé room where permanently stationed spectrographs received it. These reflections, though, involved a certain magnifying strain and degradation of the image—whereas “riding the cage” meant cutting right to the front where, for the first time, the observer stared like Perseus straight down into the pristine first-reflected light. It’s hard to imagine. It was probably the final, highest expression of stupendousness in science. The mechanical, intuitable extension of our longings. Russell Porter, artist and engineer who helped design the telescope and established pretty much inaccessible standards for the cutaway illustration, drew a series of remarkable extrapolations from the blueprints. One shows someone (one of the project engineers named W.D. Burton, it is thought) at the controls of the “prime focus pedestal” in the center of the cage. He’s hunched above it, peering down into a tiny guiding eyepiece as he grips one of a system of handwheels used to keep the photographic plate on target. He would have hunched like that for hours at a time as light accumulated gradually on the plate—though probably not in suit and tie as shown. He is idealized somewhat, like his surroundings. As if he, too, were extrapolated. Drawn with that same angular yet modulated clarity, his surfaces described, articulated—shine of combed-back thinning hair, meticulous wrinkling of his suit—as if he had been engineered along with the rest of it. It’s touching to see it formalized like this. The everyday inserted here—the suit and tie and shiny shoes and wire-rimmed spectacles as part of it. Placed up there at prime focus like it belongs at the edge of everything. What would he have been looking at? Not much. The cold, discouraging gleam of the guide star in the crosshairs. Not much more than that, I think.
* * *
The other day I asked Elizabeth if she remembered how it felt, back there in that little room at night. Those first few nights before we got the curtains up. Did Mr. Possum come around much? Was it hard to get to sleep? I imagined she would have stayed awake and looked for him—his shadow on the wall. Or, actually, walls. Somehow her room was a sort of panoramic camera—other backyard lights and windows figuring into it. I think maybe I remember one time peeking in to see him turn the corner. It all lined up exactly right to show what it was possible to know. Once there was something. But she didn’t stay awake, she says. And so the possums vanished until Rocky came along a few years later.
Possums come along to eat our garbage, get our dogs worked up at night and, if we happen to observe them, reassure us inexplicably. Oh look, we sort of start and sort of sigh, it’s Mr. Possum. So substantial in his insubstantiality—and yet it all works out.
I would love to be able to do a Porter drawing of Elizabeth back then in her room at night. My artist-girlfriend, Nancy, might be able to pull it off. She did a wonderful Krazy Kat cartoon for me that’s dead-on. Here is Burton as imagined in 1940 in the prime focus cage suspended at the top of the largest telescope in the world, I’d show her. Make it look like that. See if you can get that subtle, hazy, silvery, dreamlike glow to everything. The cool, fastidious surfaces. The loneliness. The sense of loss and wonder. Have her sitting up in bed and turned to face the wall behind her. Porter liked to draw these delicate white lines with tiny arrows to define the beam and angle of the light and its reflections. That might work. Between the window and the shadow. Have the room be nearly empty. And be careful with the shadow—her attention is the focus, not the shadow.
And perhaps a little extrapolation here might be in order. A little stupendousness, as silly as that sounds. (A little traveling music, Jackie Gleason used to say.) Imagine a great hemispherical dome like Palomar but bigger. Maybe something like that immense and strangely futuristic cenotaph for Isaac Newton that Étienne-Louis Boullée proposed at the end of the 18th century in a series of almost hallucinatory renderings. How fearfully, somehow, it seems to emerge in its own planetary shadow, its own night, into a ragged revolutionary dawn. You want Enlightenment? Well, here. It’s not exactly what you thought. The monumental ambiguity. But anyway, like that. As big as that. And the interior very much the same as well—completely spherical and empty. Though in this case with a great horizontal slot cut through to the sky for about one quarter the circumference at an elevation thirty degrees or so above the equatorial level where a mezzanine directly below the slot provides an observation floor. Stay with me here. The dome itself, like Lizzy’s room, becomes the instrument. The mediating principle. The slot, the backyard fence. And here’s where Porter’s style comes in—it’s mostly atmosphere. It’s all inside the empty dome. Gauzy, silvery air and simple, vastly curving surfaces. Some people on the mezzanine for scale—so small you can’t tell what they’re wearing. Maybe lab coats. Togas. Ordinary dress. They’re lost up there. Above and behind them you can see the night sky wheeling past the slot. The endless stars. Can you imagine the quality of dark in there? Imagine how you might not want to whisper lest your soul escape into it. And yet Porter plausibly dilates how we see it. As if starlight were enough. No white lines here—just the faintest indication, slightest brightening of the starlight-brightened air, a brighter dark, comes through the slot, expands and plays against the far side where perhaps a third—a huge rectangular section—of the spherical interior seems to present a darker surface, like a blackboard, to receive it. This is a photosensitive surface that, on clear nights, can be activated, forced to stay awake all night, night after night, for years or even centuries. Stupendousness requires that possibility. To give the information time to gather—random starlight, faint, discouraging, light-years-distant fact of starlight to accumulate around some sort of shadow of the deepest, most uncertain understanding. Not much more than that, but wouldn’t that be something, after all.
When we got Rocky he was a puppy, so it took a while before the possums started to appear—or reappear. I’m told they live no more than a couple of years in the wild, which is unusual for a creature of that size. As if they never quite evolved beyond some kind of strict necessity. Some fragile, thin necessity. I guess when this was cotton fields or sorghum, pasture, prairie or whatever, they would have inhabited the strands of forest here and there along the creeks. But now that we’re here, so are they. They came along to eat our garbage, get our dogs worked up at night and, if we happen to observe them, reassure us inexplicably. Oh look, we sort of start and sort of sigh, it’s Mr. Possum. So substantial in his insubstantiality—and yet it all works out. He comes and goes. And even Rocky, dim and hollow as he is—as faintly, gradually as information accumulates in him—contains, or represents at least, the understanding that there’s nothing but the stories that we tell. Good dog. That nothing else helps very much to mitigate our loneliness, our distance from ourselves. And that it doesn’t change a thing that, every now and then—say one in thirty, one in fifty—having hauled another to the alley, laid him carefully in the grass outside the fence, you’ll come back later and discover he has gone.
This essay appears in Shame and Wonder: Essays, by David Searcy (Random House, 2016).