The Secret at the Center
One November night while lighting a cigar out in his backyard after dinner, Sam wondered what was at the center. The exact center of it all. He leaned back in his lawn chair, the plastic straps straining at his weight, took a deep breath that filled his lungs with sharp musky smoke, and wondered. Did the universe even have a center? Sam thought that it must, everything has a center, has that one point which can be calculated and defined as being the center. He stretched out his feet, his knees cracking at the effort, exhaled, and surveyed the small expanse of sky before him. Smoke spiraled upwards from his cracked lips, obscuring the few stars that werenâ€™t already hidden by clouds and city lights. What is at the center up there?
How odd it was for him to even wonder about anything at all, let alone wonder about the vastness of something so large, but these days he welcomed distractions of any kind. The question echoed in his head strangely, What is at the center of the universe? Maybe more dark space or dying stars or giant planets. Maybe a point where all things converged before heading in the opposite direction, only to someday return to the same spot or a black hole that devoured everything it touched from light to the dust of shattered planets. Or perhaps there was only a small sign with the word â€œCenterâ€ printed in neat, legible lettering to mark the spot. Sam chuckled at the thought.
Thinking about the largeness of that vast vacuum of space made Sam feel very small and still more alone, sitting beneath it in his small rusty chair. Taking another long drag from his cigar, he vaguely remembered learning in school that at its center the Earth was a core of hot molten lava that swirled in and around itself, always daring escape, threatening to break through the many layers of dirt and rock in search of clean air. Sam shifted uncomfortably as if he could feel the movement at the center of the Earth vibrating up the weak aluminum chair legs. But how did anyone know for sure? As far as he knew no one ever had dug that deep into the earth, had never seen the center, had never ended up in China by digging a hole. So who could ever say for sure what is it the center without ever going there?
Finished with his cigar that was no longer appealing to him, he put it out in the ashtray next to his chair. But not ready to go back inside, he continued to sit as the night grew colder and colder, forcing his mind to concentrate on smaller matters. It wasnâ€™t until later that night as Sam laid awake in his bed, still not used to the absence of weight beside him, that a sudden idea overtook him. An absurd idea, a impractical idea, an idea that would never work, an idea that made him pull the covers tight to his chin, the idea that he wanted to be the one to discover the secret at the center.
The next morning he woke later than usual, made a pot of black coffee, and stepped outside. Sipping his coffee, he walked around his small backyard, surveying the garden that had turned to ruin from neglect. The one person that had tended to its needs one day stooped in the middle of planting her favorite golden marigolds, which should have been opening their buds right now. Instead, all was dust and weeds, brown plants, and empty wooden stakes. The grass was a bit overgrown beneath his feet and he promised himself that he would take care of that soon. A shovel caught his eye leaning against the shed at the side of the house, a bit rusted with a handle that was splintering, but still looked as if it could dig a good, solid hole if it needed to.
Later that afternoon, his daughter was busy in the kitchen cooking him dinners that he could freeze for the next week. He sat quietly at the table reading the newspaper he didnâ€™t have time for this morning. The front page didnâ€™t hold his attention nor did the sports section, his gaze kept drifting out of the window to the small expanse of his backyard.
â€œI was thinking that I would take those red crystal candle holders,â€ his daughter said.
Sam folded the paper back up. â€œWhat now?â€
â€œThe candle holders she used for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I thought I would take them. Weâ€™re eating at our house, anyway, and I wanted to use them as the centerpiece. That alright?â€
â€œSure, sure, you can use whatever,â€ he answered, remembering she loved the way the candle holders would shimmer and cast red shadows on the table when lighted.
â€œWell, Iâ€™m about done here. Is there anything else you need?â€
â€œNo, no, Iâ€™m fine,â€ Sam said.
He watched her carefully fill Tupperware containers with lasagna and some kind of chicken before putting them in the refrigerator. â€œI have to pick the kids up from soccer practice so Iâ€™m going to get going,â€ she said, placing all the cleaned pans back in their proper place. She paused and surveyed the kitchen as if she expected someone to approve her work and verify that everything was cleaned up correctly.
â€œThanks for coming over, donâ€™t forget the candle holders,â€ Sam told her, standing up and kissing her on the cheek.
â€œI wonâ€™t, but next week we really need to do some dusting in this place. You could write your name in the layer of dust on the dining room table,â€ she said.
He helped her pull out the candle holders from their place in the cabinet. She opened up the box to check them and held them up the light, admiring them like she had done when she was child, Sam recalled, and all the times she had been scolded for touching them. But now they were hers and she could admire and touch them all she wanted. She carefully laid them back in the box and delicately carried them to her car. Sam stayed behind, like always. Returning to the kitchen, he filled a glass of water at the sink. A wedding ring was stilled kept in its ring holder next to the hand soap, the last place it was placed by its ownerâ€™s hands.
Again after dinner, Sam sat outside, but this time the cigar remained unlighted in the ashtray. After a short time restlessly sitting, he stood suddenly and went upstairs to change into a pair of old overalls that he hadnâ€™t worn in months. Five minutes later he was pushing that old shovel in the earth, breaking apart grass and top soil in search of the center. For the next five days, Sam dug.
At one point the handle of his shovel broke as he tried to pry up a particularly large rock so he had to run to the hardware store to buy a new one. He wasnâ€™t sure what had taken over him, he knew that he would never reach the center, that it was an impossible task, but he couldnâ€™t stop himself. At night he dreamed of scoop after scoop of dark black earth piling into a great mountain and of a hole reaching, reaching for something buried deep down. By day, he dug, sweating and burning in the sun, covering himself in dirt that had permanently stained his skin and lodged itself under his fingernails. But as the hole grew wider and deeper, changing from the light colored topsoil full of rocks and worms to the richer black soil underneath, Sam pressed on even harder, more determined than ever to reach the center.
When his daughter came the next week, he covered the hole with a tarp. He sat in the living room watching a baseball game as she dusted the house and vacuumed the floors, all the while anxiously wanting to get back outside. Coming back from the kitchen she asked him, â€œWhat is that tarp doing out there?â€ He nervously made up a story about how the roof of the shed was leaking and he had to take everything out to fix it and needed the tarp to store things on. She nodded and didnâ€™t ask anymore. After she left, he went straight back to digging.
More days passed and the hole grew so deep that he had to go buy a tall ladder so that he could easily enter and exit the hole. When he could no longer shovel out the dirt over his head, he devised a pulley system which took him only a day to design and build that attached to the tree branches that overhung his hole which allowed him to fill large barrels with dirt and pulley them out. Samâ€™s obsession grew and he found himself only stopping to drink water, quickly eat, and nap for a few hours. He began to work late into the night, setting up a bright lantern so he could see in the dark, as there was nobody there to call him inside with her soft voice after the sun went down and nobody there to tell him stop digging that ridiculous hole.
One night, as usual, he had lost track of time and checking his watch he saw that it was eleven minutes past midnight. For hours he had dug without rest and although he was thirsty and worn out, his bones and muscles aching from all his hard work, he couldnâ€™t find it in himself to quit. So he dug on, faster and faster, shoveling and straining his back, not knowing where the strength and drive was coming from. He had to reach it, had find what was at the center. Sweat dripped into his eyes and he wiped it away. The sound of his heavy breathing mixed with the crack of the shovel as it entered the earth. Sam forced another shovel stroke into the ground but instead of meeting resistance, it slid smoothly in, meeting a hollow space. He tried to pull it back out but a force was pulling from the opposite direction, he yanked, and with final effort he pulled, lost his grip, and hit the wall of the hole hard, knocking the wind out of him.
Recovering, Sam gasped at the sight before him. The earth had broken away under his feet, he stood suspended on nothing. Below him, the universe opened into a great expanse of swirling darkness, lightness, blues mixing with greens mixing with reds, brightness and stars, expanding, flowing clouds of glowing dust and rock, time streaking through space, trailing sinuous comets, infinite rings surrounding planets revolving, a snapshot of the universe from a deep space telescope. Sam wondered at the sight. It was so large, but strangely he had never felt less alone. Everything was open to him. He knew everything stayed connected, the Earth to the universe, him to her. Shown the secret at the center of everything right under his feet, he promised silently never to tell.
Khristian Mecom was born in Oklahoma, but grew up in South Florida. She graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a BA in English and is currently working on a MFA in Creative Writing.