What you need to know: Arthur Lefkowitz is a jobless, rather unsociable, third-generation Holocaust survivor divorcee living in Brooklyn. He is coming to the end of a large settlement he received as a child after being prescribed damaging anti-anxiety medication which left him substantially more anxious, neurotic, and idiosyncratic than before. He lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and spends much of his time on an online videogame, stalking around virtual reproductions of Holocaust memorials, and talking to a non-Jewish woman who lives in Lithuania. A hurricane has recently come through New York and deposited mysterious black dots and lines in the sky. Arthur thinks they’re a hallucination until he receives confirmation that other people can see them too—society, oddly, doesn’t care about them as much as he does. Each day, they seem to descend more and more. In this scene, which comes after the hurricane has passed, Arthur returns to his apartment after buying a tripod and a pair of binoculars to finally get a closer look at the dots and lines.
I came home to find my apartment undamaged and the electricity on. I discovered, as I turned on my laptop, that I was dismayed to be with my connections again, that I would not be recreating the most important quiet of my life, the quiet that had come in the wake of hurricanes, in the silence of damage, and in the house’s disconnection from the grid. As a boy, I lay on my bed in a lightless room, the hurricane shutters locked across my windows, with not enough light to see the hands in front of me, or to provide the slightest necessary fuel to the pale green stars on my ceiling. I listened for hours to the non-sound only darkness makes, and when it was night, I went to the patio with my father and felt the satellites zoom in to the Lefkowitz node on our suburban grid, where we sat on patio furniture and found the W of Cassiopeia. And with silenced neighbors and their silenced lights and the improbable notion that each of the suburban nodes around us had been disconnected as well, that all of us living on properties divided by palm trees and mailboxes were now in private wildernesses divorced from the electric essentials that kill the stars with their byproduct, we lay and listened to the woodsy soundtrack of God, my father’s and not my own, though on such nights he lent Him to me, and we spun in our chairs and viewed from our Arles the analog firmament where everything was reflecting and everything came from memory.
I stepped out onto the fire escape and took a deep breath. I was rushing, and each time I used the fire escape I knew with absolute certainty that I would die. After a moment, I threaded the handle of the bag over my wrist, and then, in a terrifying, stiff wind, took the latter to the roof.
As usual, the view was extraordinary. At five stories, my building was taller than most, and I could see clear over the tops of my neighbors’. The skyline gave me church steeples of patinated green copper and steely luxury condos, gave me Downtown Brooklyn, the Deco setbacks and gilded, bacchanal vault of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, its clock hands glowing red for the evening; it gave me lower Manhattan and the cool aggression of World Trade Center One. But most of all, it gave me the unadulterated, cloudless dome of the sky.
I set up the tripod in the middle of the roof and took the binoculars out of the canvas carrying case. They were bulky and massive and I was glad I had bought the tripod. Simply holding them told me I would never be able to stop them from shaking. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to rig it together—there were knobs and levers of cheap plastic that needed coaxing. When that was set, I extended the legs of the tripod as far as they would go, which was just too short. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would be taller than the average binocular user. No matter. There wasn’t any time to care. Something, anything, was running out, was depleting. The gulf between the unknown and the known was about to close. I was going to find out what was up there. It was time.
I touched my eyes lightly to the oculars and held my breath. There were so many dots, so many lines to follow. I felt in direct exposure to something so perfect that the process of its intake went haywire in my mind and warped my sense of awe until it felt like despair. It was a hiccup that suggested I wasn’t good enough to revel in such a thing, that I wasn’t worthy of any gratification that hadn’t been tampered by anxiety and self-loathing. A Japanese maple in a Park Slope courtyard, lit by a gas-lamp in dusk could cause this feeling; or the power-line fields near where I grew up: monolithic, cross-thatched beams that held osprey and crow nests and buzzy black cables that sped for miles into the obfuscating distance, the cables cleaving between houses and leaving rare, empty land below, all coated with stiff, yellow grass. In summers, I used to lay beneath the wires and listen to America hiss. These places, or moments, or visions, were sublimities to which I could never be entitled. Beautiful, faultless objects, might bring about this sad withdrawal, like certain photographs of Annie in good light, or the holy tchotchkes in my nightstand drawer: a plastic baggy full of beads that had been glazed in red powder and jasmine, a rock from Treblinka, or peculiar matchbooks, a scuffed lighter, or a Mickey Mouse wristwatch from the first girl I ever loved. All of that painful nostalgia poured through me as I stepped away from the tripod and tilted my head back until there was nothing above but clean blue globe.
Sky enveloped me. Big and pale and blue. I was overcome by enormity, then overcome by the alien minutiae. The lines as chains, the dots as—
It was too much. I looked away, down toward the horizon, to the setting sun above the steeple to the west. I had gone in there last year, that magnificent church. In the adjacent alley, a Virgin Mary hunched hauntingly in a faux-cave, lit through the night, always scaring the shit out of me. The doors were open when I walked by. There was a kind of procession, people in robes. Behind and above, Jesus sat in a clamshell of light like a white Buddha, glimmering with golden paint. The congregation and the clergy were black and Latino. I stood for a moment and felt both kinship and revulsion, then took a picture with my phone. Now, on the roof, I moved back to the binoculars and scanned the sky, moving higher from the steeple and away from the sun, toward the chains and toward the people—yes, people—toward the men and women, mostly old and some young, into whatever features resolved in clarity as I turned the focus dial. They were far and small in the lens but distinct enough to show their humanity. I took a step back from the binoculars and stared at the sky.
I couldn’t internalize what I was seeing. My vision blotched when I looked straight at them. Whether they wore clothes. Whether they were groomed. Whether the chains held their wrists, or they hung inverted, held by their ankles; whether the chains held both. Whether they were Jews, or Christians, were black or white, or even where the chains terminated. They shot out in two dimensions, flat against the sky’s wall, and spread themselves until they disappeared to the east or west, curving inward around the belly of the world. I moved the tripod farther back to get a better look at the dot directly above me. Dangling legs disappeared into a halo of hair. I was looking at the soles of a person’s feet.
I was nowhere, with no theories. Knowing that they were people and chains seemed to change everything, but I waited and waited for an epiphany that never came. I didn’t know who they were, how they had gotten there—nothing had been revealed about the nature of the hurricane, about the curious human detritus that had been left behind. But I found myself guarded and jealous. Like I had always felt around other Jews, that being around other Jews ruined Jewishness for me. There was little chance I was the first person to identify the dots, to stick a magnifying lens on them, but nevertheless I became sick with the idea that this was something I would have to share with the world. All of a sudden, I wanted to own the people in the sky. I wanted them for my own isolated thinking. Most of the pain I felt whenever I watched beauty was the idea that other people were watching too—that other people were sharing in the sublimity. All I wanted was the deed to this particular beauty, this particular vision. I wanted ownership, a claim, wanted to pour a protective mold around the maple in the courtyard, the power-lines in the field, as if to say: they were mine, not yours, and they could be seen and loved by me alone. My vision staggered and I moved away from the binoculars again. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t focus. I knew that eventually the people in the sky would lower to the ground, and they would become greenhorns and be forced to assimilate, because there would be too many of them to be sequestered in government hideaways, and the world would be forced to engage with them, to take them into their understanding of things, and, when that time came, no one would know that I had had my own private affairs with the people in the sky, no one would know that a bond had been forged, and no one would recognize my rights, or my relationships, or that I had belonged, undoubtedly, to the select group of early-watchers and identifiers: the people who loved and craved and ached for special knowledge and the rewards and honors that came from possessing it. And though I would suffer to have to share these feelings with the fellow members of this group, I would ultimately consent to it, because I am not the kind of person who would rather no one have it if I can’t alone have it—no, I am only the kind of person who aches more, who wants more, and who believes more. I am only the kind of person who knows with implacable certainty that the world, and everything in, it was created for him and him alone.