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Recalculating

eisenberg_1-071411.jpg
Prints and Photographs Division, the White Collection/Library of Congress
Detail from ‘The Seventh Thousanth and Eighth Hundredth and Sixty Third Performance at the Diving Board L.G.H., 1911,’ an album of snapshots by the photographer F. Holland Day. This photograph and the one on page 58 are from Verna Posever Curtis’s Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography, which has just been published by Aperture

Who is that?” Adam asked, pointing at a boy on a swing set. Adam was helping, pasting photographs into an album at the kitchen table. His mother, rolling out a piecrust at the counter, paused to look.

That’s Uncle Tommy,” she said. “Don’t you get flour on that.”

Next there were some grown-ups sitting on Gramma and Grampa’s couch. Next a lot of people in front of extra-tall corn, kids in front. “Is this Aunt Rosalie?”

That’s Rosalie all right—look at the hair.”

Are you there?”

His mother peered over at the snapshot he was studying. “That’s me. The smallest one, over on the end there, with the smocked dress and the pigtails.”

Adam considered the sad-looking little girl. He would have liked to pat the girl’s head, but now she was just a bitsy kernel inside his mother. “Smocked dress. Smocked dress,” he said, stacking the sounds up like the wooden blocks he used to play with. The tallest of the children was blurry. He must have moved. “Who is that boy, at the other end?”

Let me—oh. That’s Phillip.”

Phillip?”

The oldest. Your Uncle Phillip.”

Oh…” Adam studied the picture and reviewed the jungle of legs he’d clambered about in at the last family occasion, belonging to cousins and aunts and uncles and second cousins and great-aunts and great-uncles. “He was at Gramma and Grampa’s house on Easter?”

You’ve never met him. He’s far away.”

Is he older than Uncle Tommy?”

Yes.”

Is he older than Uncle Frank?”

What did I say, Adam? Phillip’s the oldest. Are you going to put that into the album, or are you going to wear it out looking at it?”

Adam bent obediently over his task for a moment. “What was Uncle Phillip like when he was my age?

I wouldn’t know,” his mother said. “I wasn’t born yet.”

But…what was he like after you were born?”

She could tell Adam about Uncle Tommy when he was little if he wanted to know, she said, or about Uncle Frank or Aunt Rosalie or Aunt Hazel or Uncle Ray. But given the difference in their ages, she and her brother Phillip might as well have grown up in different households. She rotated the piecrust a severe quarter-turn and bore down on it with the rolling pin. “He went away east to college, and he never came back, except once, when I was twelve, to visit. Daddy—Grandfather Jack—had expected him to take over the farm. Grandfather Jack was heartbroken. He never got over it, even though the rest of us stayed.”

Oh. Did Grampa Jack yell at Uncle Phillip?”

Grandfather Jack loved Phillip. We all did. Phillip was the oldest. Phillip was family.”

Oh. Did he die?”

Did who die? Of course not. What kind of question is that? He went away to live.”

Oh.”

Adam kept his trusting gaze trained on his mother, while cautiously attempting, as if he were groping his way along a wall behind him, to locate a door. “Where did Uncle Phillip go away to live?” he said, with cagey nonchalance. “Did he go away to live in Des Moines?”

Betsy frowned at her piecrust, now a near-perfect circle. “If Phillip lived in Des Moines he would come to Easter. And Thanksgiving and Christmas. Phillip went to Europe.”

Europe?”

You know what Europe is, Adam. It’s across the ocean. It’s a continent, like America. We’ll look on the globe later.”

Was Uncle Phillip a nice boy?”

Nice? Well, generous, I suppose. Impractical.” He’d brought her a present, a sweater from France. But it hadn’t gone with any of her clothes, and she had never worn it.

What—“ Adam began. His mother swiveled around to him, terrifyingly, but then blinked and turned back to her piecrust. “He never did have his feet on the ground. Grandmother Alice gave that thing away to someone who could use it. I would have outgrown it soon enough, anyway.”

The pie was cooling on the ledge. The photographs were pasted carefully onto heavy pages. Adam wandered off into the newly harvested field and stretched out on his back, staring into the shining blue.

So, he had been waiting and waiting, and finally, one interesting thing had happened in his life—he had discovered a secret person. A person who had just slipped right out of the family pictures. The other boys and girls who got caught by the pictures had been turned into his mother and uncles and aunts, but his new Uncle Phillip was far away, beyond the ocean.

He sat up too quickly and closed his eyes to steady himself. Red suns flared across the darkness, and when he opened his eyes again, there was the combine, tiny, shearing off the billowing gold in the next field. The little toy figure driving was probably Uncle Frank.

Just past the combine was the curve of Adam’s great planet, Earth. It was a known fact that Earth was round and that it was spinning in the middle of the sky.

God had created Earth with its vast oceans, which Adam had seen pictures of, and its blue air. But all that spinning of Earth’s was what created the tides and the winds, and it was what created time, too.

Miss Brewer had explained. Earth was never still. It twirled like a lollipop on a stick, so that you looked at the sun and then you looked at the moon, and that was a day. But the lollipop was also swinging in a great, oval loop, like the rim of a platter, around the sun. It always went back right where it had started, but only when one whole year had been pushed out into space for good.

It made you dizzy to think of. Some people might be awake now on the other side of the planet, walking around in dark, upside-down Australia, and yet they would snap back onto Earth with every step they took, as if their feet were magnets. Because the real situation was, the world had no top or bottom, and he was just as upside-down, right now in broad daylight, as those people in nighttime Australia were.

Miss Brewer had told them that they would never fall off Earth. But what if Miss Brewer was mistaken, and something went wrong? What if one of Earth’s parts got broken, the brakes, for example, and Earth started to spin faster—then would they all go flying off? Would the oceans spill all over the place? Would the continent America bump into the continent Europe? Would day and night just be little strips—light dark light dark?

In fact, the wind was picking up this very instant. That was normal, of course…But oh—there went the stick of gum he was just about to unwrap!

Probably no one else was paying much attention, and he was the first to notice. Should he run inside and tell his mother? She would laugh at him, or say he was lying. And anyway, it was too late to do a thing about it—the blue above him was already deeper, more intense than it had been moments ago…

Adam clung to some bits of stubble and closed his eyes. Hang on, he thought, as Earth gained speed and spun recklessly into night—hang on, hang on, hang on!

The cause of death was given as pneumonia. There was to be a memorial in London for people who had known and loved Phillip, but the funeral was back home, strictly for the nearest of kin, who for decades had seen him only in clippings sent by a vigilant cousin living in California. When he arrived in person, the coffin was, of course, already sealed. In his absence, over time, he had brought a certain amount of honor to the tiny town where he’d grown up, and he had become a source of pride by virtue of being admired elsewhere.

Phillip’s friend Vivian knew a bit about his parents, and she had written to them, urging them with just the right degree of warmth to come over for the memorial. They declined, saying that they were in poor health and couldn’t travel. But it seemed that there was one relative who was planning to attend—some nephew of Phillip’s named Adam, who had written her a brief note to say as much.

Squashed into his seat, streaming through the wonderful clouds for the first time in his life, Adam recalled his childhood attempts to commune telepathically with his mysterious uncle, a hazy figure, radiant and beckoning, who saw the best in him, even when others shook their heads and sighed. Too bad he had never actually dared to write a letter…

Day streamed toward the airplane, the plane glided downward, Adam was fitted into flowing channels of people, a train collected then deposited him—improbable as it was—only a few blocks from his destination in a place called Chalk Farm, though it was actually part of London and not a farm at all. The couple—Indian, Adam conjectured—who ran the peculiar little hotel managed to scare up an iron, and he was able to reconstitute the shirt that his pack had turned into a wad.

And a good thing, too—he hadn’t anticipated the elegance of the occasion, he realized as he ascended the wide front steps of the hall where the memorial was to be held. He hadn’t anticipated anything. It was the end of May. He had just finished college and his girlfriend had just broken up with him as well, erasing quite a lot of his envisioned future. His graduate program wouldn’t start until fall, and the summer job he had rounded up in Cincinnati wasn’t to begin for three weeks. He did not mention the memorial to his parents when he called to tell them he had saved up enough to take a trip. Europe? his mother said, as if she’d never heard the word.

In the lobby, Adam’s language floated softly around him, but refracted through the many accents, it sounded unfamiliar. In fact, the similarity between the exotic beings who had convened here and regular people seemed nominal. So many people, from so many different countries, each of whom looked so distinctive, so interesting, so supremely confident of his or her right to occupy space!

Say thank you, say it again, say excuse me, say please, say it louder, not that loud, say grace, don’t get in the lady’s way, ask for seconds it’s polite, don’t take so much, pay a call, bring a gift, don’t overstay your welcome—no one in his family had ever had that look! No one in his family had ever looked like they had the right to be anywhere at all!

Or perhaps his Uncle Phillip had. Adam parked himself next to a column in the corner of the lobby before going into the auditorium, just to gawk. Yes, it was as though aliens from an advanced civilization had cleverly disguised themselves as humans, in order to effect some purpose that had not yet been revealed to him.

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