On the eve of the new millennium, fate visited Chancer Wylls and I was once again orphaned to the world, twenty-nine years from the day I was born. The year predicted to begin in disaster instead ended that way. The dice-thrown odds of my father’s life had finally come up snake eyes.
I knew nothing of that as I followed the mist-touched streets toward my dank apartment. I had just left an over-warm room crowded with smiling people all celebrating the coming New Year. All, that is, except for me. I had nothing to celebrate. Instead, I found myself pressed against the living room wall while my ex-fiancé and his new love stepped through the door. I turned to leave and a stab of pain shot through the bruised rib he had left me. Giving a quick nod to the host, I slipped unseen out the back.
Pulling onto the dark stretch of road, I tried to put the scene I had just left out of my mind. On the last night of the year I wanted to forget my mistakes. Captured in the car headlights, the roadside trees vibrated before a chill wind.
All at once a figure appeared before me, his form draped by a hooded poncho. I swerved, slamming my foot on the brake pedal and stopping only feet away. He pointed his gnarled cane into the sky, his free hand raised in blessing, his voice song-like. I could just make out his words above the wind.
The darkness it nears, the fire it comes,
Fire and darkness, darkness and fire,
Follow your path or the land will burn!
He disappeared into the night. I blinked, unsure of what I’d seen or if I’d seen anything at all. Gripping the steering wheel, I angled back onto the street.
Moments later I pulled into the parking lot outside my apartment. I sat puzzling over the strange encounter when I spotted my grandparent’s car parked at the curbside. A wave of dread passed through me. What possible reason could they have for visiting so late, especially on New Year’s Eve? Did they somehow sense the shame of my breakup? Had my grandfather’s cancer returned? My mind raced with possible explanations.
My grandparents had mostly raised me after my father decided he was not up to rearing a child alone. Having already done their time as parents, Beatrice and Penton signed on again when my dad took a position in the physics department of the local university. That was after he had spent a month trekking across Australia in search of the mother I never knew. He said he did it for me but I knew better. He could never face up to losing her.
Knowing my grandmother, Beetie, had a spare key, I hurried up the stairs before pausing at the doorway, afraid to turn the knob. Whatever the reason for their appearance, the last thing I wanted was for them to feel sorry for me. I’d seen enough of that already. I took a breath and swung open the door. There they stood in the hallway, their faces drawn, my grandmother with her purse pressed to her chest. At the sight of me she burst into tears and my heart sank. My grandfather sighed and put an arm around her, waving me toward them.
I knew that instant something had happened to Chancer. The look on their faces told it all. I stood still, my mind filling with him, his wrinkled clothes, his forgetfulness and, most of all, his mathematics obsession, endearing but exasperating. At a young age his gift for mathematics had become obvious and he’d had no trouble getting into college. That’s where he met my mother, his first true love. She ended up leaving him but he never spoke so much as a single unkind word against her that I can remember, although Beetie said he had plenty of reason.
That first year at college something happened to him, something he would never talk about. The world of ideas became his refuge, physics his vocation. After I arrived, he did his best to be a father but it seemed I took care of him as much as he did me. So, I started calling him by his first name. I would find him in his study at all hours, grappling with this equation or that theorem. I’m not a math person so I understood little of what he said the few times he bothered to explain. My job was to make sure he ate the occasional meal and left for work on time. Even then I sensed his obsession would someday be his undoing.
So I looked at Beetie and Pen for a moment, letting the memory linger before I walked to where they stood, putting my arms around them both. Beetie sniffed and took a breath before pulling away. She was always the strong one. Seeing her cry was so out of the ordinary I braced myself for what was to come. As usual, Pen stepped aside to let her speak.
Tegan, sweetheart, I don’t know how to…
It’s about Chancer, isn’t it? Something’s happened.
The roads were slick with all this mist and fog and he…
-She stopped, unable to finish. I guessed at her meaning.
He had an accident?
But he’s alright, isn’t he?
-Pen gave his head a slight shake and looked away, his eyes glistening.
He’s in a hospital, then.
-Beetie stepped toward me.
Tegan, you have to understand…
Where is he, Beetie?
-She took hold of my hand.
Oh, sweetie, it was a very bad wreck and…
-I held up my hand.
No, wait, Beetie! What hospital is it? Why won’t you tell me?
-Her voice dropped to a whisper.
-I saw something in her eyes and my thoughts froze.
Chancer is gone?
-I heard my voice, my words, yet nothing about them seemed real. Beetie sensed my disbelief.
We can’t believe it either, Tegan.
Oh, Beetie, Pen, he can’t be, not now, not after we got things straightened out.
I know, sweetheart, it’s so unfair to all of us, but especially to you.
This can’t be right. There has to be some sort of mistake. Are you sure it was him?
How can he be gone, Beetie?
-My voice seemed not my own. He’d been away many times before. I wondered how this time could feel so different. Beetie squeezed my hand.
It’s a shock for us too, sweetheart. We were so looking forward to his visit.
He was on his way here?
-I stared at them, confused by her words. Pen nodded and I took a step back, trying to find some foothold for my thoughts.
But why would he come here so late, Pen? He couldn’t have been coming from a party. He hates that sort of thing.
He wanted to surprise you for your birthday, Tegan. But you know him and the clock.
-Chancer was never on time. At the thought, I let out a laugh then caught myself. They stared at me as I put a shaking hand to my mouth. A moment later their faces dissolved behind a curtain of tears.
A week after the funeral Beetie’s voice called through my door, followed by a light knocking. The sound reached my ears but failed to register as I lay on the couch staring at the ceiling, my mind stuck in some sort of limbo. Normally, I would have been out on a Saturday morning taking a walk or running errands. Instead, the tape of my strange life ran over and over through my head like a bad movie. The knock came again but louder, more of a flat pounding. I turned my eyes toward the hallway as Beetie’s voice called out, muffled by the door but still forceful.
I know you’re in there, Tegan. You’ve had your time of moping around but enough is enough. You get yourself off that couch and answer the door this minute, you hear?
-I turned my head toward the foyer knowing she would never give up. Then I pulled myself up and shuffled across the room. She pretended to look angry as the door swung open but I could see in her eyes a mixture of hope and worry. She lifted a tattered book from her purse, offering it to me.
Go ahead and take a look.
-I cradled the fragile-looking cover in my palms.
What is it?
It belonged to your father.
But where was it? I went all through the house.
-I had insisted on going through his belongings alone, trying to make sense of what little I knew of him. Chancer had never been one to talk about himself. And as an astronomer he had often been away logging time on some huge telescope in a remote part of the world. That’s one reason Beetie and Pen had become like parents to me. She squeezed my hand.
I forgot about the book, Tegan. You see, I’d hidden it away. Your father gave it to me for safe keeping when you were a baby. His life was so unpredictable back then. He wanted me to give it to you if something happened to him. But as time slipped by and life seemed to settle down, I put the thought out of mind.
-I spoke under my breath.
And then something did happen.
-She sighed, nodding her head.
A month or so ago he asked me about it so I gave it back to him. He had it in the car the night of the accident. He planned to give you the book as a birthday gift.
A Poor Student’s Almanac is an odd title. Where did he find it?
-The meaning escaped me as I stood there, still in a sort of daze. Beetie tapped the cover.
He wrote it, sweetheart.
-I held up the small book, a sign of the zodiac scrawled across the front.
Chancer wrote this? What’s it about?
He made me promise not to read it so I never did. All I’m sure of is that he wanted you to have it. After you read it you can tell me about it if you want to. Right now I have to pick up Pen at the doctor’s office.
-My heart sank at the thought of more bad news.
Is he sick again, Beetie?
Don’t you bother about him, Tegan. He’s tough as an old post. It’s you that concerns me. I want you to start taking better care of yourself and stop worrying me so.
As I watched her step through the door, an image of Chancer squinting into the eyepiece of a telescope came to me. Next to him a tracking motor whirred, mixing with the bell-shake sound of chirping crickets. A sky scrubbed free of clouds stretched above us, stars and planets littering the hazy darkness. Somehow, he seemed part of it and it part of him.
Without taking his eye from the lens, he motioned toward the east where a bright point of light flickered above the horizon like a blue flame. I waited for an explanation and scanned the sky trying to guess at his thoughts, knowing how he loved to keep me in suspense. Finally, he stepped back and peered at the star.
That star is Sirius, also called the Dog Star because it’s in the constellation Canis Major. Sirius is the brightest star in our sky other than the sun, Tegan, and one of the closest. That light you see is about eight years old.
How can light be as old as me when I’m looking at it right now?
It can because it’s eight light years from the earth, so the light takes that long to get here.
-He swept his arm across the sky.
Some of the other stars are hundreds of light years away. The light you see from those stars happened before your great-great grandfather was even born. When you look up, you’re looking into the past. Isn’t that something, Tegan?
-I stared at the flashing point of light and nodded, feeling the warmth of his hand on my shoulder, hearing the excitement in his voice. He led me to the telescope, steadying me over the eyepiece as a potato-like asteroid slowly tumbled across the lens. Not long after, I wandered off to bed. He spent the rest of that night tracking the asteroid, barely making it to his class the next morning.
-I pressed the thin book between my fingers, trying to patch together those scattered memories of him, wondering about the man that was my father. He had been in and out of my life so often, available yet somehow unknowable. I hoped the book would help me understand him. Thumbing through the pages, I decided at that moment I would tell his story if I could.
In the early part of the twentieth century Albert Einstein developed a theory that a body in motion alters the area around it, bending space to its image, sending forth ripples of attraction at whatever comes near. Chancer had become obsessed with Einstein’s theory, familiarizing himself with the peculiarities and struggling to master the mathematics of gravity, time and space. He felt somewhere within the concept lay his future.
Equations floated before him, tormenting his thoughts as he drove his rusted-out sedan from San Antonio to Houston days after the start of the New Year. He squinted at the passing street signs. Beyond the windshield, gray clouds skimmed the ragged horizon. Heading for a modest house set along a broad boulevard lined with palms, the home of his father’s mother, he tried to banish the problem long enough to consider his future. His life was about to change in ways he could scarcely imagine. Having placed out of a semester and a half of coursework, he was starting college.
On the seat next to him sat a small notebook. Tucked inside, a sheaf of papers held his scribbled attempts to master Einstein’s equations. He glanced at the thin book, running his fingers across the blank cover. Days before, he had decided to start a journal in the form of an almanac chronicling his first year of college, in his case conveniently starting in January. The Romans had named the month after Janus, the god of beginnings, often pictured with two heads, one looking to the past, the other to the future. He wondered what might be in store for him in this new undertaking.
A wide tree-lined avenue appeared, pulling him from his thoughts. Surrounded by sprawling live oaks, their intertwined branches black against the afternoon haze, his grandmother’s red brick home came into view on a slight rise halfway down the block. Piles of leaves smoldered at the curbside. The acrid smoke carried memories of past visits as he turned into the narrow driveway, pulling past the sidewalk and up the short slope.
Grabbing his duffle bag, he made his way up the sidewalk to a narrow set of concrete stairs leading to the front door and the broad, screened-in veranda just beyond. He paused then stepped through. Beyond the veranda, the house opened into a wide living room, its hardwood floor covered by a red and blue oriental rug. Antiques from past plantation-owning relations crowded every corner. He stood listening to the sounds of the old house and breathing in the familiar smell. Moments later his grandmother appeared across the room. Jumping at the sight of him, she scolded him in her sing-song southern drawl.
Chancer Wylls, didn’t your father teach to announce yourself when you come into someone’s home? You nearly took the life right out of me.
I’m sorry Gammie. I was just enjoying being back in this house.
-She nodded and fanned herself.
Well, alright then. It’s not like I wasn’t expecting you, although I thought you’d be here some while ago.
I guess I lost track of the time.
I believe I’ve heard that before.
-She eyed him for a moment.
Lord Almighty, Chancer, did you sleep in those clothes?
What? No, I didn’t sleep in them.
I’ve never seen so many wrinkles on one person.
They always look this way, Gammie.
If there’s one thing I do before I die, I’m going to teach you how to wash and iron your own things. I’ll see if we can get Sister Louise to come help.
-Chancer tried to smooth out his rumpled pants.
Is she here for a visit?
Don’t you remember? She moved here after your Uncle Van Horn passed on. I suppose it’s been almost a year now.
-Gammie’s sister had bought a house just down the street and the two widows spent most evenings at one or the other’s home, sharing cooking duties and keeping each other company.
I guess I do.
She’s so looking forward to seeing you, Chancer. Are you hungry, sugar?
Not really, Gammie.
But look how thin you are. I’ll bet you don’t eat enough to feed a bird.
-She nodded toward the kitchen.
I just took a batch of cookies out of the oven. Go on and help yourself but don’t eat too many. Sister is coming over a little later to join us for dinner.
An hour later, Chancer climbed the stairs of his grandmother’s garage apartment, depositing his duffle bag in the bedroom and hurrying out the door. He wanted to see the campus before nightfall. As he followed the broken sidewalk, Einstein’s theories again filled his mind. He picked through the equations step by step, hopeful that he might actually understand them.
Passing a row of stout palm trees lining the esplanade, he turned onto a side street and made his way along a shade-darkened tunnel of oaks, their black limbs stretching above the roadway. Dappled shadows rippled before him, dim beneath the winter sun. A moment later, he came upon a busy intersection.
He scurried across, the beige arches of the university appearing before him all at once, rising above a thick wall of shrubs marking the edge of campus. Slipping through a narrow opening, he stepped onto a broad lawn adjacent to the physics building. Porticos framing two sides the grass-covered mall stretched into the distance. He checked the campus map, feeling the excitement that comes with a new beginning.
As he moved across the open space, the shouts and cheers of an unseen crowd echoed between the buildings. He paused to listen, the voices growing louder. A moment later a group of students appeared to his right, rounding a corner and heading straight for him. Carrying signs and placards reading “Hell No We Won’t Go” and “U. S. Out of Viet Nam Now”, they chanted a steady rhythm of words that tumbled between the buildings.
Current events had rarely held his attention. He preferred the self-contained world of math and astronomy. Then the realization he might be drafted had settled into his consciousness like a cloud across the sun. The lottery determining who must join in the war effort loomed only months away.
The crowd stopped as a long-haired man carrying a bullhorn turned and shouted into the air. A dozen men stepped forward, forming a circle and pulling white cards from their shirt pockets. Chancer assumed they were draft cards. A lighter appeared and he watched as the men held the cards to the flame before dropping them into a pile. A moment later a group of women ran forward, pulling several bras from a brown paper bag, dousing them with lighter fluid and tossing them onto the fire. Cheers erupted across the crowd.
Chancer stood by, waiting for what might happen next when one of the women broke from the group, making straight for him. He froze in place, mesmerized by her intense gaze and flowing red hair. She seemed an image of Botticelli’s Venus. Stopping feet from him, she nodded back toward the crowd.
Aren’t you going to join us?
-His eyes grew wide.
You want me to burn… uh… to… you know?
-Unsure of his intent, she eyed him before tucking an auburn curl behind her ear and offering her hand.
I’m Elizabeth Byerson but everyone calls me Byes.
Why do they call you that?
I hate my real name.
-He shook her hand then glanced past her, the crowd already disappearing beneath the arches of the portico.
Aren’t you going with them?
-She followed his gaze before turning back to him.
You’re in favor the war?
What? No, I’m not for the war.
If you’re against it, why don’t you join the protest?
I didn’t say I was against it.
Well, which are you, for or against?
-He stared at his hands as if they held the answer, unable to match her intense gaze.
I don’t know.
How can you not know? There’s nothing more important, especially when you could end up getting shot at.
I don’t like to think about it.
You and about a million other guys. What will you do if you get drafted?
-He looked up at her, finally feeling he had solid ground to stand on.
Based on the cut off number for the lottery last year, the odds are zero point three four two four that my birth date will be selected.
You sound like a math text book.
-He squinted at her, wondering if she meant to insult him.
I like math if that’s what you mean.
Math won’t help much if your number gets picked.
I understand the odds.
One in three doesn’t sound so great to me.
-He stared at the ground, lost in the grim reality of the thought.
No, it’s not so good considering the potential result.
-She bent toward him, peering into his face.
You never did tell me your name.
I’m Chancer Wylls. People call me Chancer.
Do they? What a surprise.
I just meant… never mind.
Where’d you get a name like that?
I got sick after I was born, real sick. The doctors didn’t think I’d make it but I did, so my Uncle Trewin decided that pure chance had beaten the odds. After that, he started calling me Chancer. The name just stuck.
Well, I’m glad lady luck was with you.
Otherwise we wouldn’t be here now, would we?
-She nodded toward a nearby bench.
Will you sit with me for a moment, Chancer Wylls?
I was just on my way to…
It’s only for a minute.
-She stepped up to the bench and sat, patting the space next to her. Chancer stood by, shifting from foot to foot. She looked up at him.
Aren’t you going to sit?
-He stopped and stared at the bench.
Yeah, okay, sure, I can do that.
-Perching on the edge, he tried without effect to smooth the wrinkles crisscrossing his pants. She watched him for a moment.
Chancer, this is not a job interview. We’re just getting to know each other a little. Are you okay with that?
-He gave up on his pants and looked up, her lapis-colored eyes filling his mind, and for a moment he felt as if a warm blue sea had washed over him. Water-soaked words floated about him in nonsensical order. He blinked, finally managing to find his voice.
I’m not much good at making conversation.
I don’t care much for small talk either. I want to hear about you, what you like, what you don’t like. Say whatever comes to mind.
-Her tone seemed reassuring.
I don’t know what to say. I just got here. I was on my way to the physics building.
So that’s why you sound like a textbook. You’re a physics major.
-The ground beneath him began to feel solid again.
I’m hoping to get into the astronomy program.
I knew you were a man of mystery. You’re a stargazer.
A stargazer is a fish, genus Astroscopus.
Actually, I meant it in the poetic sense, Chancer.
Oh, right, you mean gazing at the night sky. Speaking of stars, I heard there’s an old iron observatory on the roof of the physics building with a sixteen inch reflecting telescope. You can reserve time to use it. That’s where I was going when I saw you burning your… you know.
-She chuckled at him.
They’re called bras, Chancer.
What did you mean when you said you just got here?
I’m just about to start classes here at the university.
That’s why you looked a bit lost when I first saw you. You’ve never been to campus before?
Not until today.
Then you need someone to show you around, don’t you?
I don’t really know anyone.
You know me, Chancer. Let me be your guide.
You would do that for me?
If you say my name I will.
Say my name, Chancer. Call me by my name. I want to hear you say it.
You’ll give me a tour around campus, Byes?
I’ll be your personal guide if you let me, Chancer Wylls.
Alright, but only if you’ll go with me to see the telescope.
-She nodded and stood.
We have a deal. I’d better get back to my friends. They’re probably wondering what happened to me. Meet me here at ten tomorrow.
-She disappeared around the corner. Chancer looked after her, the feel of her name still on his lips.