*[SEE EARLIER POSTS 2013-2014]

I walked back to my small house on Southeast 34th between Salmon and Hawthorne. I figured Lovejoy’s murder was likely the work of a cult, but I didn’t have any idea as to which cult it might be—there were many to choose from in the Pacific Northwest. Portland is riddled with cults: Moonies, Chanting Buddhists, Heaven’s Gate, Born Again Christians, Moses David Born-Agains, Krishnas, Scientologists, Seventh-Day Adventist splinter groups, followers of “The Two” and others. You might also agree that the Masons are a type of cult.

And cults were making it difficult for me to do my job. They swarmed the streets, especially the downtown blocks, or near Burnside, or in the Northwest section, the largest transient population. The cults preyed on young, homeless street kids, or sometimes better-off-but-searching middle class kids with expensive backpacks, who were just passing through town on a tour of the West Coast. Often the predator had once been the prey himself, maybe only a few weeks earlier, before his or her brains were washed. The psychologist or sociologist will tell you it is the need to belong, the need for family, for group identity, for community, and those theories are undeniable, but there is usually more to it than meets the eye. Everyone’s story is unique.

I entered my house. The phone was ringing.

Corno . . .

“Why don’t you come back to work for me,” he said, sounding more like a command than a request.

“I’m fine where I am, D. And I’m still working for you, indirectly.”

“I guess you take this murder personally. Were you and the victim close?”

“No, not really,” I told him. “But Lovejoy was married to my mother, and I do care about her.”

“You know, I’m long past firing you over the Shad Run case. You overreached that time, Juan. We had the killer, but you defended the tribe, you fucking bleeding heart. You had no place doing that. The poor Indians, or—excuse me—‘Native Americans.’”

“It was out of our jurisdiction,” I said. “A federal case.”

There was brief silence on the other end of the line.

“Come back,” Corno said. “You’re like a son or a little brother to me.”

“I’m touched.”

“You’re telling me you lived with this man, who was your stepfather and a notable personage in the city, for almost a decade, and you knew practically nothing about him? Cut me a break.”

“Pretty much. My stepfather was hardly ever around and he didn’t care about me anyway.”

Aw . . .”

“My feelings aren’t hurt.”

“No shit . . . so, whaddya wanna do? Are you going to try and find the killer or not?”

“I haven’t been retained by anyone.”

“Maybe your mother will hire you.”

“That’s very good,” I said, laughing into the phone. “Cute . . . Witty . . .”

“You are fucking weird,” Corno said.

I was inclined to agree.

“You know, with your veteran’s status,” he added, “you could easily pick up a cushy government job, or steady police work with opportunity for advancement, like me. You do want to marry eventually and settle down, don’t you? Why are you a free agent? So you can fuck pretty girls with no bureaucrats from internal affairs up your ass all the time?”

There was a touch of jealousy in his last comment.

I passed what was left of the morning and most of the afternoon doing not much of anything. By late afternoon I poured myself a tall glass of Scotch, lit a Lucky Strike non-filter, and read for a while. I read Jung mostly, and a smattering of Gide, Huysmans, and Theodore Roethke (I was restless). I mulled over the Beowulf clue.  I made a vegetable stir fry with bulgur wheat for dinner. There’d been a shower earlier and in its wake the sky had taken on a curious mixture of turquoise, orange, and mauve.

In a way, detective Dore’ Corno had been like a father to me, or at least a mentor, and his tough guy jibes were meant to be fatherly. Everett Lovejoy, on the other hand, had been inaccessible, judgmental, and simply cruel with his off-the-cuff remarks: “You eat like a Spaniard.” Or: “I honestly don’t know what your mother sees in you . . . maybe a little of that greaser trumpet player.” He had an aura of displeasure about him, as if he were perpetually being forced to smell something awful. One time, when I’d gotten arrested for speeding well above the speed limit on 82nd Street, all he’d managed to say was, “You really are as stupid as I’d always thought you were.” I was 17 then.

But Lovejoy’s chilly opprobrium may have been preferable to my biological father, who’d basically left me with nothing in the paternal realm and never once tried to make contact with my mother (why would he?), and had no knowledge of my existence. I even wondered if he remembered their one-night liaison. Although Lovejoy had made no secret of hiding his dislike for me. He’d been a well-paid executive at _____________ and had provided for my mother, Victoria, and my much younger half-sister and me. Growing up, I’d repeatedly asked myself what type of man was better: The miserable, hateful son-of-a-bitch who’d taken care of me, or the potentially “great guy” and artist who’d fucked up my life from the get-go and still passed his days oblivious in the sunshine of L.A. or Catalina or Guadalajara. Honestly, I should have been investigating the disappearance of Sanchez de Fuca, trumpet player and womanizer extraordinaire, instead of the murder of Citizen Everett Lovejoy. Sanchez was the real fucking mystery.

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There wasn’t a great deal of difference between life after death and life before death among the Pueblo Indians, and particularly the Zuni people to whom he belonged. The Zuni believed that the dead remain in the house for four days and their spirit present during this stage can be threatening and possibly harmful. After four days the spirit travels to a village-katcina and joins their deceased group of family and friends. In some villages the wife is allowed to join the male after she dies. The Zuni have no sense of punishment or atonement as do the Hopi. No Heaven or Hell, no duality in their belief system.

He was buried with the standard fetishes (etowi): cornmeal and feathered ears of corn, black prayer sticks, healing stones, kachina, two masks.

They had read the writings of Carl Jung to one another, taking turns by firelight. Three nights before his accident and death, his mother had come to him in a dream. She’d been dressed in ceremonial costume and stood near a large well. An altar had been placed in front of her, and a fish lay upon it. His mother had then gutted the fish and cast the entrails down into the well (where they’d splashed after a long descent) but kept the head. She’d lifted the fish head so he could see it clearly, and said: “Only this can save you!” His mother was Christian, having converted to Roman Catholicism while he was in his teens, and she’d been buried with all the ritual attending the Catholic Mass. She’d been a bit too dismissive of his mother and the dream: “A fish head? Really?” but was bothered by the recent tense furrows that darkened his face.

She’d kept his favorite jacket—light brown leather with a fleece lining. The jacket still held his scent, and also the scent of the elements it had protected him from over the years, and even a trace of the small cigars he occasionally smoked, but mostly she could smell his whiskered neck and jaw where it had abraded the turned-up collar, a shade lighter and buffed by the constant friction of his jaw. Out on the plateau in the circling winds and sky, she had often buried her face in his jacket collar, holding him for warmth, feeling the current of his being arcing through her. Many nights she would clutch the jacket under her blanket, inhaling and drawing him deep into her lungs, stroking the arms and back and front of it, running her fingers against the wool where so many times she’d plunged her hands under the jacket to warm them on his torso—so many fine and stolen moments.

 

With all the Friday traffic, we didn’t arrive at the cemetery offices until five minutes till four when the office closed. I told the mortuary representative who greeted me that I was looking for my parents’ graves. It had been eight years since I’d been here, and I couldn’t remember exactly where the plot was located. The representative was a well-dressed woman in a gray business suit, pleasant but reserved and somewhat guarded. She may have been put out by my end-of-business request—the business of the dead. She stepped into another room to find the location of the family plot and print out a map. The office was about to close . . .  I waited . . . I read something hanging on the wall: a long paragraph about a man who’d lived centuries ago in the middle east, and was a carpenter, and hadn’t done much with his life until his death at the age of 33. I was so weary from driving all afternoon that it took maybe 15 seconds before I realized the Catholic homily was talking about Jesus, the message being how much God as the Son, the man who hadn’t done very much on the surface, had ultimately changed everything. The woman from the mortuary returned with the map, and drew a circle for me around the family plot, and explained how to find it (finding the plot would soon prove to be a great deal more difficult than her tidy explanation). I asked her if I could use a restroom, and she appeared amused by my request, though I found nothing amusing about it, maybe I had a look of desperation—my bladder certainly wasn’t amused! With a complicit smile, the woman directed me to use the one in the conference room.

The sky was dark as lead at 4:00 on an August afternoon; air charged with electricity, thunderstorm just minutes away, and M. and I were wandering among the graves, searching for my parents, to no avail. The problem was that the graves hadn’t been well maintained, the cemetery grounds crew could only do so much, and ongoing maintenance and care was the responsibility of the families and/or loved ones. I was reminded of the scene at the beginning of “Night of the Living Dead” when Barbra and Johnny are at their father’s gravesite and Johnny is trying to spook Barbra by playing a zombie (“They’re coming for you, Barbra.”) until a real zombie approaches from out of nowhere, kills Johnny, and begins eating him. We had the perfect setting for a horror flick, but there was no horror here, only frustration. And we were visiting in the exact same time of year, almost to the day where, a decade earlier, I stood on this hill looking at the grave of my father, and then looked down the hill at my mother leaning against the car, still very much alive but unable to climb the gradual hill because of her polio leg and slippery grass. A year later, again, almost to the day, we buried her in the place where I now stood.

M. finally found them. A miracle! I had thrown out a couple more family names and she had discovered a grave with the name “Edythe Manss” my great aunt Edie and that meant my parents were close by. We tore away the grass that had partially grown over their names. What struck me at the time, after this crazy searching in the cemetery, was the impersonal character of it all. I don’t know, maybe we were in a hurry, and it was extremely hot and humid and on the verge of a massive storm. I looked at the markers, at the names of my mother and father, just names and dates like the rest of the stones and plaques that crowded this earth, though it had been more than that, much more. The  “more” lives on in my memory.

They never visited me in my dreams, never guided me or offered a revelation from the hereafter, or even a simple “hello.” But I do think of them. I keep pictures.

We left the burial grounds and headed to a local Shop-Rite, which had a bathroom for washing the soil and grass stains from our hands, and also a liquor store. Rush hour on a Friday afternoon, oppressively humid August misery, scurrying crowds, growl of thunder. Waiting for M. to come out of the bathroom, I recalled that, on this same street my parents would take me for ice cream custard summer nights at a Dairy Queen type of place, and across the road there was a German-American restaurant where the extended family (three of whom were in that family plot besides my parents) would go for sauerbraten and ox-tail soup on New Year’s Day. On the spot where I now stood there’d once been a chalet with an ice skating pond, and nearly six decades later, I waited for M. with those late 1950s memories and the present moment light years apart.

She would treat the silver — hammer, bend, shape, twist, braid — then work on settings, turquoise mostly, but also garnet, moonstone, jade and amber, occasionally lapis-lazuli. Out there turquoise was the stone of choice. Navajo country, after all.

He’d taught her well, though he always had a natural affinity for the material and a mastery of craft that she would never attain. A number of people had told her her pieces were as good as his, but she wasn’t fooled by their praise, didn’t believe it for a second. Any trained eye could detect the subtle Pueblo esthetic and consummate workmanship of her late husband.

The various hues and lusters of her gems, scattered across the work table, were like the stars in their different magnitudes and colors.

It was a lonely place. No, not lonely—solitary—more like the silent deafening choir of the heavens each night. She wasn’t lonely among the tribe, among the people, even when she hadn’t seen anyone for a few days, or a week, other than the tourists who stopped to appraise her wares. Many of the pieces had originally been made by him, and she had finished some of his pieces herself while others would always remain unfinished. She took her time completing a piece he had started, and she wasn’t always as careful or meticulous with her own work. All of it brought her a sense of calm, of serenity, but also pain, exquisite pain that she could never quite find the words to describe, like a hard growth as big as a fist that lived inside her.

Things were different now, much different. She knew that in her skin and marrow.

For seven years they had the sun, had it together, felt like they had it all to themselves, on climbs and hikes, exploring the ancient arid clay, the timeless geologic formations that only deceptively appeared timeless. Everything would eventually reach its end, including her, and him, long before the mesas crumbled. At the time she’d given little thought to mortality. She was in her 30s, alive and happy, and in love, living with a man whom she would never have imagined living with, in a place where she had never dreamt of being.

She’d returned to drinking after he died. Although long past other means of getting high, drinking still offered her a refuge of numbness and temporary amnesia, and a hastened certain drift to unconsciousness each night. She rarely started while working on her jewelry. She needed her eyesight and didn’t want her vision to fog or blur when handling small fragile stones and metal. Then once her work had ended for the day, she would allow the wine or beer (usually wine, except in extreme heat) to take charge. It was the easiest thing in the world to do, and besides the sheer narcotic pleasure of alcohol coursing through her veins, drinking heavily removed any sense of accountability from her life. Although there were times when I might have gladly embraced some gesture of remorse or penance from her, or maybe a simple heartfelt apology, such a gesture had never reached me, and I’d learned to accept that it probably never would.

In the fall of 1980 PBS Television ran the mini-series, “Cosmos” with Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan. Overnight, Brainchild Scientific was busier than it had ever been in the 18 years since I’d started working there. Telescope orders were pouring in, and a great number of people—would-be astronomers and their families—walked the floor and asked myriad questions about astronomy and telescopes. The show’s popularity was undeniable, and I tried following it at home whenever I had a free minute. Gladys and I were so busy with Ramona that couldn’t always catch an episode of “Cosmos” between diaper changes, cleaning, and foraging. My ecstatic mood over “Cosmos” caused a minor conflict on the domestic front.

“But you know all this stuff,” Gladys protested. “and it’s somewhat dumbed down or certainly below your level of knowledge.”

She was right, but the beauty and excitement of the show for me was that popular culture had seized upon astronomy. Astronomy, thanks to Carl Sagan, had become cool and fun, and Sagan was a master popularizer. He put his erudition and passion on display without talking to his audience. In the style of the best science teachers, professors and popularizers through the ages, Sagan dreamed and imagined and made the audience dream along with him. He deftly and creatively narrated the history of Astronomy and the great figures and discoveries (Galileo, Tycho, Copernicus, Hershel, Einstein, etc.) and in spite of the distance we’d come in our understanding of the heavens, he reminded us that we were still more or less in the infancy of our knowledge. Gladys was right about my already knowing a lot of the nuts and bolts, but the show had offered validation of my love of astronomy and the business of making and selling telescopes. With “Cosmos” I lived another birth in my soul to enhance the births of my daughter and son.

But I was so busy with the store and parenting, that I sometimes fell asleep in the armchair before an episode of “Cosmos” had ended, and I was reminded of the “life stuff” which can and does interfere with major astronomical events. I recalled that 11 years earlier I’d gone through a similar period of attention deficit, during the first moon landing though for an entirely different reason. Back then I’d been doing a few drugs, hanging out with college kids and having sex with co-eds. While my mind back then had been elsewhere, in the present my focus was on being a father and everything it entailed. Yet these two astronomy events weren’t really in the same league. Apollo 11—the first moon landing—was historically huge, monumental, “a giant leap for Mankind. . .” whereas “Cosmos” was still, at bottom, an entertainment and marketing juggernaut. What they shared was a moment in time when the stars and space exploration loomed large in the public imagination, and while I had spent most of my adult life engaged in amateur astronomy and telescopes, I found myself disconnected during these larger collective events. During the big events I’d been tricked into “living.” No small thing. Any look into the heavens takes your gaze away from earth and vice versa, and one can never really be in those two places at the same time. An added irony with Carl Sagan and “Cosmos” was that I’d often been missing the phenomenon while indirectly being in the service of its success.

 

Chapter 20 — Home

“I had an affair,” she said.

Gladys and I were seated in our living room facing one another. Monday afternoon. I had been home for all of 20 minutes which had allowed us enough time to talk excitedly about the coming baby. The segue from “baby” to “affair” was like a sweet melody crashing into a dissonant chord. And something in Gladys’s timing seemed grotesque, as much as she may have needed to get her announcement over with—to purge, atone, confess, release, wallow in catharsis, seek forgiveness? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow at least and given me a little more time to bask in the strange but euphoric glow of impending fatherhood? Gladys became frightened. The look on her face as she began telling me of the affair had been direct and honest in the wake of shared tenderness, but then my face must have darkened instantly because her expression instantly turned fearful, hesitant, mostly worried. She may have felt the need to soften the blow by calling me in Arizona with news of the pregnancy. I guess she believed we were closer now, which we undoubtedly were. Nature had already seen to that.

“Who?”

“You’re not going to like this . . . Bob Lane.”

Bob Lane? How was that even possible? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because if there were ever two people less likely to engage in a relationship it would have to have been those two. Where were Bob’s playmates? His bimbos? I could understand his eventually tiring of them and seeking out someone more intelligent, more mature, someone he could actually talk to and conduct a life with, but Gladys? What on Earth did he see in Gladys? And what did Gladys see in him? Possibly wealth (no small thing). At least we cared enough for each other despite all our problems. Occasionally I’d found it difficult to imagine Gladys having sex with anyone, but she and Lane rolling in the hay was beyond my comprehension.

“Bob Lane . . . Wow . . . I always thought you hated him.”

Gladys fidgeted.

“People change—“

“No, they don’t”

She possessed the information I needed and was going to take her time presenting it.

“He paid attention to me,” she said. “He was kind and I felt sorry for him. He’d been having a lot of regrets about his divorce. His kids don’t want to have anything to do with him. The mother has poisoned the kids against him; she’s brainwashed them even though everyone is well taken care of. Bob was really down, despondent over the bad decisions he’d made, the lifestyle he’d chosen that ultimately left him empty inside.”

“We’re talking about Bob Lane?”

I couldn’t tell whether or not I was seething with anger, inwardly laughing at the absurdity of it, or merely stunned and incredulous. Maybe all three.

“How did it happen? I mean, how did you two arrange things?”

“He showed up at the house one day and invited me out for coffee. It was great. We talked for a couple hours. Bob thinks very highly of you, by the way.”

“Of course he does,” I said, giving her a look.

Gladys shifted in the chair and scratched her stomach.

“Don’t be like that, please—“

“How am I supposed to be?”

“I don’t know . . . anyway, that’s how the whole thing started. He usually took me to his place. Sometimes we’d go to a motel. It lasted from June through October. I broke it off and he totally understood.”

“Then there’s no chance—“

“Of the baby being his? No, none whatsoever.”

The timeline seemed plausible. Bob had left for Mexico before Christmas. Gladys and I had made love New Year’s Eve. If she and Bob had stopped having sex in late October, as Gladys claimed, then Bob Lane’s paternity was out of the question. The timeline came as a bit of a relief. There was no way I would have raised his kid. I had already sacrificed enough for him.

“But if it hadn’t been for Bob,” Gladys continued, “we wouldn’t be having this baby.”

“How so?” I asked her.

“Wanting Bob made me want you all over again. He drove me back into your arms—literally. But it’s always so hard to pull you away from your telescopes, Soren. New Year’s looked perfect. You were out with Frank and Claudia and relaxed from a few drinks, so I seduced you as soon as you got home.”

A spate of not-too-pretty images and ideas were crowding in my head, but one idea persistently nagged above all others and Gladys read my mind: Bob rushing out of the Starlight Tavern the night before Easter.

“I lied about being at my mother’s that night. Bob sounded too alone so I made plans to see him. Believe me, nothing happened, there was no sex. In fact, during our affair there were a number of times that we skipped sex and instead just held each other and talked.”

I couldn’t decide which picture seemed worse: The sex and rush to sex? Or Gladys and Bob cuddling as they opened the sluice floodgates and tearfully mourned their regrets and longings, two lonely hearts conjoined in some sterile hotel room, somewhere.

 

My glass room observatory appeared smaller in scale and less significant after the grandeur of the Empyrean Observatory and its mammoth Cristallinum and Primum Mobile telescopes. I realized I might need some time to feel comfortable working in this room again, though I conceded my becoming a little spoiled on the summit of Blake’s Peak, in the world of “real” astronomers, I still loved my home observatory and my amateur astronomy work. I knew that available time for the glass room observatory was going to be shortened in the coming years, and I struggled internally with that sacrifice—foregoing a longstanding happiness for the sake of a new one. It seemed crazy to think I’d be able to carry on with my life as I’d always done, and Gladys would never allow it while we raised this child.

I hadn’t bothered with my routine of astronomy one I’d gotten home. At least not right away. The work I’d undertaken of following and cataloging multiple star systems (including Burns and Allen, Scorpius-429) had lost momentum, though for a more important reason. Instead, I would spend a random night or two observing Saturn or the Moons of Jupiter—faithful objects that were predictably compelling as the great familiar giants of our solar system. Still haunted by the expectation of twins, I’d made a cursory viewing of the Geminids.

I enjoyed returning to Brainchild Scientific. My co-workers, those I managed, appeared happy to have me back, which I took as a good sign. Amidst the generators and mineral collections, the fossilized insects and optics kits and sextants and star charts, the astrolabes, dinosaur displays and of course telescopes, I would see the jar containing the bird skeleton and Beatrice holding it, see her joy and child-like fascination, and I would feel a fleeting pang all the more remarkable because of everything I’d been through with her since that first moment. I knew I wasn’t going to see Beatrice for some time, but Laura would be my connection to her, and also to Wyatt Edwin or Tatiana once he or she arrived.

I spoke with Laura the second day after returning to the store. She had been out the first day and I asked her whether Beatrice had commented on the trip. Laura told me told she’d heard all about Adam and Eve, the Primum Mobile telescope and Butterfly Nebula, the canyon, magic mushrooms and alien hallucinations. She’d heard the story of the scorpion sting and of a Navajo jewelry maker named Virgil who’d given Beatrice an intricate, magnificently wrought bracelet. And apparently Beatrice said I had treated her pretty well and we’d had fun together. Then Laura abruptly stopped talking, not unusual for her, though I sensed she was keeping something from me. I searched Laura’s face for clues.

“Beatrice is having doubts about keeping the baby,” she said.

Those words cut deep.

“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?”

Laura stared at me.

“Not entirely.”

“Shouldn’t I have a say in her decision?”
“It’s still her decision . . . to get the abortion, terminate the pregnancy . . . it’s her body.”

When I didn’t say anything, Laura added: “I begged her not to.”

“She’ll have the baby,” I said, thinking of how often Beatrice talked about the baby and her pregnancy on our trip, her worry after the scorpion sting. I recalled the smooth ivory mound of her belly with its sash of moonlight, a communion of salt seas and tides in that high dry canyon. There wasn’t anything more sacred on Earth.

“She’ll have the baby,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

 

I drove to and from work each day as if nothing in my life had changed. But in the pale green of early Maple leaves and the white apple blossoms and Magnolia buds, and with the grass tall and slick from recent April rain, I kept recalling the desert and its geometry of shadows. The Chollo and Ocotillo in bloom, Saguarro cactus, but no Maples and no grass except artificial turf in some suburban developments. I could still feel the powdery soil beneath my feet moving across the ground of the reservoir, like the soil of another planet, devoid of things like lawns and meadows, mountain glades, more like Mars or the fictional Arrakis. The Hopi believed they could only inhabit such land in order to carry out the spiritual existence they’d chosen, and the southwest corner of desert states extended farther down through the latitudes into Mesoamerica and the great civilizations whose timeless gods I’d seen leering back at me on the frieze of the Empyrean as if to say: What do you really know in your puny suburban landscape? Your personal problems are trivial. The heavens in which we abide are just as real as yours. . . .

Although I’d greeted Laura’s news of Beatrice’s abortion with surprise, Beatrice had alluded to that subject the last night we were on the road. Too tired to drive further, we’d stopped at a motel in Ohio just across the Indiana border, and after checking in had dinner at a nearby T.G.I. Friday’s. The place had exuded a hyper neurosis that signaled we were definitely back East or getting very close. The patrons had looked either tense and bitchy, or sad and alienated, while our waiter scrambled among the tables because his job depended on it, and when taking our order I’d noticed a rapid tic in his cheekbone. Beatrice had been clearly depressed from lack of sleep and the dreadful ambience of the restaurant and I could read in her face the wish to return to a cantina. She hadn’t eaten anything but instead gulped a few cups of coffee and commenced a stream-of-consciousness litany about death and returning West and hallucinating and her dream and Virgil and Laura and her bracelet and a snippet on not having the baby among other clamoring thoughts. I had eaten a cheeseburger and fries and enjoyed a couple of beers. I’d mostly kept my mouth shut. . . after dinner I’d drifted off to a half sleep in my motel room with the TV still on, something more contemporary and vacuous than Burns and Allen. In my semi-conscious state I had argued violently with Beatrice until, yanking a lamp from the wall, I’d brought it crashing down onto her skull. I’d then donned the coyote mask, or I might have become Egyptian Set, and rolling her inanimate body into the plastic motel shower curtain with a tacky flower print, dropped it into the canyon abyss—a hazy illusion of leaf petal falling as if the canyon had been a weightless space. I’d held the fetus in the palm of my hand, an exact likeness of me, gazing into my eyes with innocent wonder. I’d then bolted upright in bed to the garish images and laugh track of a sitcom, heart racing. A small cry escaped my parched throat. And I immediately recalled two movies I’d seen the previous year: “Alien” and with Kyle, a midnight showing of “Eraserhead.”

“So, who is she then?” Eve Atwater had asked me when I’d told her that Beatrice was neither wife, nor girlfriend, and definitely not my daughter.  Eve had this blunt, direct way of questioning, which made me realize she lacked social boundaries, similar to me at times. Eve did not mince words, and I had been uneasy in her presence as much I had liked her. Her question regarding Beatrice had somehow probed deeper into my psyche as more than a mere statement of relationship. I didn’t know Beatrice any more than I knew myself. I knew that she would be having a child and that I was the child’s father—that was about it.

When the dome of the Empyrean gaped open to the miraculous night sky, it felt as though I was rising into Heaven, that I was as close as I would ever come to gaining Heaven while still anchored to this planet. I wanted to ascend like the Australian café’ owner in Beatrice’s dream, a genie wrapped in vortices of campfire smoke. Beatrice had told me of the child I’d thrown away trailed by the falling stars that turned into snowflakes sifting down through the canyon walls, and I remembered that night sitting in my truck with Laura as the snow made a glittering veil around the house and Beatrice stood in the white and silver radiance of her window like a patient saint. . . .

The day we returned she’d asked me to take her directly to her school. “I honestly don’t know if it’s good to be home or not,” she’d said. “I’m ambivalent.” And at the time I’d questioned my ambivalence too. In the moment I’d sensed a finality and deep loss that was sickening at the end of our great adventure, and as Beatrice angled her body toward the door, studying me, thinking of what to say, the scene reminded of a father dropping off his daughter at high school, though in the real world the daughter would have given her father a peck on the check and then hurry off to be with her friends. That was years away for me, but a second or two later, as if reading my mind, Beatrice had leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

“I don’t want to get into a corny goodbye,” she’d said. “I will have this baby and you can see her—or him—whenever. Everything’s going to be fine.”

End of Part II

Fragments

May 10, 2016

The Butterfly Nebula has been on leave, or hiatus, so until there are new chapters to post, I’m filling in with some fiction or memoir scribbling as they occur.  ~seh

 

From a Family Memoir (also a separate blog to be accompanied with photographs).

In his later years he lived with my grandmother on Central Avenue in Ridgefield Park. Their small apartment was behind a store and the only way to reach the apartment was through an alley. My father would take me there for family visits when I was a boy. The alley had a slate walkway flanked by cracked concrete gutters. Sunlight barely penetrated the cavernous alley and it always felt damp and cool back there. There was curled and broken shingle siding splotched with moss. In that period of time—the 1950s and early 1960s—the neighborhood would have been characterized as lower middle class, but my father grew up somewhat closer to poverty. There were years when his sole Christmas gift had been a comic book.

I never saw a street entrance to the place—probably would have been physically impossible. The alley provided a front and back entrance that opened into a tightly crammed mud room packed with junk. We were normally greeted by Ichabod, my grandparents’ beagle mutt who was notorious for his goat-like appetite. The mud room joined the kitchen: an old aluminum-legged table stood immediately on the left as you entered; the Formica counter and sink were on the right and the stove directly ahead. Two doorways led you out of the kitchen: one into a hallway that terminated in a bedroom on one side and a bathroom on the other; the second doorway was to the living room that had only two windows facing the alley. These rooms and a closet or two made up the alley. From what I’d known, my father had lived here for over ten years with his two brothers, his mother and father and a maiden aunt. No wonder he’d left as soon as possible. During the war the number of occupants was reduced by two because my grandfather was away at sea nearly all the time, and my uncle was fighting in Europe for one-to-two years.

What I remember most was a pervasive darkness, particularly in the bedroom and the living room where we sometimes gathered for tea and cookies. The objects in this space, though often difficult to discern and identify, had been brought back from my grandfather’s circumnavigations around the world while commanding ships for the merchant marine. There were paintings in umber lacquered tones badly in need of restoration, Wedgwood trays, exotic silk and ivory fans, tall porcelain vases from the Orient adorned with cherries and peacocks; ebony cabinets, gilt-edged, with bone and pearl inlay; large antique reading lamps; samovars and decanters; hand-blown paper weights; damask with tasseled fringe; a brass genie lamp with a turquoise stone; an ashtray coiled like a serpent with the head of a merchant from Turkey or North Africa, and those were only the objects I was able to see.

On Sunday night at 10:00 the adults watched black and white television shows and the one I recall most was, “What’s my Line?” Everyone from the host, John Daly, to the panelists, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf and Dorothy Kilgallen, were all dressed in formal evening attire with their black eye shades as though attending a masked ball, all quite charming and urbane as though they’d just stepped away momentarily from their columnist or editor’s desks at New York’s grand old newspapers and Random House by way of the Algonquin Hotel and strolled over to CBS studios for the live show to entertain and be entertained by the audience and mystery guests. To play was simple, a variation of “20 questions.” The mystery guest signed in so that only the audience could see who they were and then the blindfolded panelists attempted to guess the person’s occupation or “line” of work. If one of the panelists’ question was correct they received a small amount of money and then continued with their questions, and when their question was incorrect the questioning moved on to the next panelist. There were normal people with normal occupations but each show always had a celebrity guest. Cash prizes didn’t factor heavily into the game; it was more about celebrity and deductive reasoning, which like most problem solving used the left hemisphere of the brain to work through language and reasoning and then the right visual and intuitive hemisphere of the brain to “see” the answer, to see the person beyond the blindfold.

 

PARAGRAPH FROM A SHORT STORY DRAFT

Will was in third grade when they’d adopted Hermes, a four-month-old tuxedo kitten discovered along with his mom and siblings behind a gas station. Originally, the gas station owner had contacted the local ASPCA after his wife and kids shamed him into not drowning the mother and her litter (apparently he wasn’t much of an animal lover) and the family had wound up taking one of the kittens for themselves. The mother and three remaining kittens were then placed in foster care until Shannon adopted Hermes for Will. At the time Will was sad and Shannon believed it would be a good idea to have a new family member to replace the one who’d recently left. She thought the cat would be soft and gentle, loving and affectionate, and not abusive like the one who’d recently left, or the one she’d thrown out before him, neither of whom were Will’s father. Will’s father, Curt, had made his stunning exit one night in a near 100-mile-an-hour burst of speed, stoked up on bourbon and meth, his Harley mating with the rear end of an abruptly careless tractor trailer lurching onto the freeway. Will had turned two a week later.

 

 

 

 

Home

“I had an affair,” she said.

Gladys and I were seated in our living room facing one another. Monday afternoon. I had been home for all of 20 minutes which had allowed us enough time to talk excitedly about the coming baby. The segue from “baby” to “affair” was like a sweet melody crashing into a dissonant chord. And something in Gladys’s timing seemed grotesque, as much as she may have needed to get her announcement over with—to purge, atone, confess, release, wallow in catharsis, seek forgiveness? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow at least and given me a little more time to bask in the strange but euphoric glow of impending fatherhood? Gladys became frightened. The look on her face as she began telling me of the affair had been direct and honest in the wake of shared tenderness, but then my face must have darkened instantly because her expression instantly turned fearful, hesitant, mostly worried. She may have felt the need to soften the blow by calling me in Arizona with news of the pregnancy. I guess she believed we were closer now, which we undoubtedly were. Nature had already seen to that.

“Who?”

“You’re not going to like this . . . Bob Lane.”

Bob Lane? How was that even possible? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because if there were ever two people less likely to engage in a relationship it would have to have been those two. Where were Bob’s playmates? His bimbos? I could understand his eventually tiring of them and seeking out someone more intelligent, more mature, someone he could actually talk to and conduct a life with, but Gladys? What on Earth did he see in Gladys? And what did Gladys see in him? Possibly wealth (no small thing). At least we cared enough for each other despite all our problems. Occasionally I’d found it difficult to imagine Gladys having sex with anyone, but she and Lane rolling in the hay was beyond my comprehension.

“Bob Lane . . . Wow . . . I always thought you hated him.”

She fidgeted.

“People change—“

“No, they don’t”

Gladys waited. She possessed the information I needed and she would take her time presenting it.

“He paid attention to me,” she said. “He was kind and I felt sorry for him. He’d been having a lot of regrets about his divorce. His kids don’t want to have anything to do with him. The mother has poisoned the kids against him; she’s brainwashed them even though everyone is well taken care of. Bob was really down, despondent over the mistakes he’d made, bad decisions, the lifestyle he’d chosen that ultimately left him empty inside.”

I couldn’t tell whether or not I was seething with anger, inwardly laughing at the absurdity of it, or merely stunned and incredulous. Maybe all three.

“How did it happen? I mean, how did you two arrange things?”

“He showed up at the house one day and invited me out for coffee. It was great. We talked for a couple hours. Bob thinks very highly of you, by the way.”

“Of course he does,” I said, giving her a look.

Gladys shifted in the chair and scratched her stomach.

“Don’t be like that, please—“

“How am I supposed to be?”

“I don’t know . . . anyway, that’s how the whole thing started. He usually took me to his place. Sometimes we’d go to a motel. It lasted from June through October. I broke it off and he totally understood.”

“Then there’s no chance—“

“Of the baby being his? No, none whatsoever.”

The timeline seemed plausible. Bob had left for Mexico before Christmas. Gladys and I had made love New Year’s Eve. If she and Bob had stopped having sex in late October, as Gladys claimed, then Bob Lane’s paternity was out of the question. The timeline came as a bit of a relief. There was no way I would have raised his kid.

“But if it hadn’t been for Bob,” Gladys continued, “we wouldn’t be having this baby.”

“How so?” I asked her.

“Wanting Bob made me want you all over again. He drove me back into your arms—literally. But it’s always so hard to pull you away from the telescopes, Soren. New Year’s looked perfect. You were out with Frank and Claudia and relaxed from a few drinks, so I seduced you as soon as you came home.”

A spate of not-too-pretty images and ideas were crowding in my head, but one idea persistently nagged above all others and Gladys read my mind: Bob rushing out of the Starlight Tavern the night before Easter.

“I lied about being at my mother’s that night. Bob sounded too alone so I made plans to see him. Believe me, nothing happened, there was no sex. In fact, during our affair there were a number of times that we skipped sex and instead just held each other and talked.”

I couldn’t decide which picture seemed worse: The sex and rush to sex? Or Gladys and Bob cuddling as they opened the sluice floodgates and tearfully mourned their regrets and longings, two lonely hearts conjoined in some sterile room, somewhere.

 

My glass room observatory appeared smaller in scaled and less significant after the grandeur of the Empyrean Observatory and its mammoth Cristallinum and Primum Mobile telescopes. I realized I might need some time to feel comfortable working in this room again. While conceding that I may have become a little spoiled on the crown of Blake’s Peak, I still loved my home observatory and my amateur astronomy work. I knew that available time for the glass room observatory was going to be shortened in the coming years, and I struggled internally with that sacrifice—foregoing one happiness for the sake of another. It seemed absurd to think I’d be able to carry on with my life as I’d always done, and Gladys would never allow it while we raised this child.

I hadn’t bothered with my routine of astronomy after the Empyrean Observatory. The work I’d undertaken of following and cataloging multiple star systems (including Burns and Allen, Scorpius-429) had lost momentum, though for a more important reason. Instead, I would spend a random night or two observing Saturn or the Moons of Jupiter—faithful objects that were predictably compelling as the great familiar giants of our solar system. Still haunted by the expectation of twins, I’d made a cursory viewing of the Geminids.

I enjoyed returning to Brainchild Scientific. My co-workers, those I managed, appeared happy to have me back, which I took as a good sign. Amidst the generators and mineral collections, the fossilized insects and optics kits and sextants and star charts, the astrolabes, dinosaur displays and of course telescopes, I would see the jar containing the bird skeleton and Beatrice holding it, see her joy and child-like fascination, and I would feel a fleeting pang all the more remarkable because of everything I’d been through with her since that single moment. I knew I wasn’t going to see Beatrice for some time, but Laura would be my connection to her, and also to Wyatt Edwin or Tatiana once he or she arrived.

I spoke with Laura the second day after returning to the store. She’d been out the first day. I asked her whether Beatrice had commented on the trip and Laura told me told she’d heard all about Adam and Eve, the Primum Mobile telescope and Butterfly Nebula, the canyon, magic mushrooms and alien hallucinations. She’d heard the story of the scorpion sting and a Navajo jewelry maker named Virgil who’d given Beatrice an intricate, magnificently wrought bracelet. And apparently Beatrice said I had treated her pretty well and we’d had fun together. Then Laura abruptly stopped talking, and while that wasn’t unusual for her, I sensed she was keeping other details from me, something new and unexpected, not unlike Gladys telling me of her pregnancy and affair. I searched Laura’s face for clues.

“Beatrice is having doubts about keeping the baby,” she said.

I was stung by her words.

“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?”

Laura stared at me.

“Not entirely.”

“Shouldn’t I have a say in her decision?”
“It’s still her decision . . . to get the abortion, terminate the pregnancy . . . it’s her body.”

When I didn’t say anything, Laura added: “I begged her not to.”

“She’ll have the baby,” I said, thinking of how often Beatrice talked about the baby and her pregnancy on our trip, her simple joy and her fears after the scorpion sting. I recalled the smooth ivory mound of her belly wearing a sash of moonlight, a communion of salt seas and tides in that high, dry canyon. There wasn’t anything more sacred on Earth.

“She’ll have the baby,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

 

I drove to and from work each day as if nothing in my life had changed. But in the pale green of early Maple leaves and the white apple blossoms and Magnolia buds, and with the grass tall and slick from recent April rain, I kept recalling the desert and its geometry of shadows. The Chollo and Ocotillo in bloom, Saguarro cactus, but no Maples and no grass except artificial turf in some suburban developments. I could still feel the powdery soil beneath my feet moving across the ground of the reservoir, like the soil of another planet, devoid of things like lawns and meadows, mountain glades, more like Mars or the fictional Arrakis. The Hopi believed they could only inhabit such land in order to carry out the spiritual existence they’d chosen, and the southwest corner of desert states extended farther down through the latitudes into Mesoamerica and the great civilizations whose timeless gods I’d seen leering back at me on the frieze of the Empyrean as if to say: What do you really know in your puny suburban landscape? Your personal problems are trivial. The heavens in which we abide are just as real as yours. . . .

Although I’d greeted Laura’s news of Beatrice’s abortion with surprise, Beatrice had alluded to that subject the last night we were on the road. Too tired to drive further, we’d stopped at a motel in Ohio just across the Indiana border, and after checking in had dinner at a nearby T.G.I. Friday’s. The place had exuded a hyper neurosis that signaled we were definitely back East or getting very close. The patrons had looked either tense and bitchy, or sad and alienated, while our waiter scrambled among the tables because his job depended on it, and when taking our order I’d noticed a rapid tic in his cheekbone. Beatrice had been clearly depressed from lack of sleep and the dreadful ambience of the restaurant and I could read in her face the wish to return to a cantina. She hadn’t eaten anything but instead gulped a few cups of coffee and commenced a stream-of-consciousness litany about death and returning West and hallucinating and her dream and Virgil and Laura and her bracelet and a snippet on not having the baby among other clamoring thoughts. I had eaten a cheeseburger and fries and enjoyed a couple of beers. I’d mostly kept my mouth shut. After dinner I’d drifted off to a half sleep in my motel room with the TV still on, something more contemporary and vacuous than Burns and Allen. In my semi-conscious state I had argued violently with Beatrice until, yanking a lamp from the wall, I’d brought it crashing down onto her skull. I’d then donned the coyote mask, or I might have become Egyptian Set, and rolling her inanimate body into the plastic motel shower curtain with a tacky flower print, dropped it into the canyon abyss—a hazy illusion of leaf petal falling as if the canyon had been a weightless space. I’d held the fetus in the palm of my hand, an exact likeness of me, gazing into my eyes with innocent wonder. I’d then bolted upright in bed to the garish images and laugh track of a sitcom, heart racing. A small cry escaped my parched throat. And I’d immediately remembered two movies I’d seen the previous year: “Alien” and with Kyle a midnight showing of “Eraserhead.”

“So, who is she then?” Eve Atwater had asked me when I’d told her that Beatrice was neither wife, nor girlfriend, and definitely not my daughter.  Eve had this blunt, direct way of questioning, which had made me realize she lacked social boundaries, not unlike me at times. Eve did not mince words, and I recalled being uneasy in her presence as much I had liked her. Her question regarding Beatrice had somehow probed deeper into my psyche as more than a mere statement of relationship. I didn’t know who Beatrice was, perhaps any more than I knew who I was. I knew that she would be having a child and that I was the child’s father. I wondered if Gladys had in fact lied about the timeline of her affair with Bob Lane, but then I figured I would be able to tell a child of mine from Lane’s any day.

I had mild regret that my parents would not get to enjoy a grandchild, or grandchildren, but they’d been dead for years, and I had taken a long time to reach this point in my life—fatherhood at 40, so you couldn’t blame them for not waiting around. I considered whether or not Beatrice’s excommunication from her family because of her lesbianism would somehow be more openly tolerated once her parents had access to a grandchild. And what about Laura’s parents? I could not recall Laura having ever mentioned a parent—maybe a sibling one or two times. It seemed perfectly likely that Laura may have been a pariah to her family like Beatrice, but I had never heard anything one way or the other and had forgotten to broach that subject with Beatrice during our trip. Grandparents could be a major help and support network but frankly so many families had dispersed to all corners of the country during the mid-to-late 70s that a geographically close extended family may have already become a thing of the past. And geographically close or not, the idea of being an involved grandparent was a personal choice anyway. Look at Gladys’s mother? Would we really be able to expect much from her?

When the dome of the Empyrean gaped open to the miraculous night sky, it felt as though I were rising into Heaven, that I was as close as I would ever come to gaining Heaven while still anchored to this planet. I wanted to ascend, to levitate like the Australian café’ owner in Beatrice’s dream, a genie wrapped in vortices of campfire smoke. Beatrice had told me of the child I’d thrown away trailed by the falling stars that turned into snowflakes sifting down through the canyon walls, and I remembered that night sitting in my truck with Laura as the snow made a sparkling veil around the house and Beatrice stood in the white and silver radiance of her window like a patient saint. . . .

So where am I now? Where are we all now? Rising or falling? Does it even matter?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virgil

Beatrice and I ate an early dinner during which she persuaded me that we should stop and see Virgil tonight before making the long drive cross country. Beatrice wasn’t overly concerned about being back in her teaching job by Monday; Tuesday or even Wednesday would be good enough. The school could get a sub on short notice. She would call them first thing Monday morning. When I asked Beatrice what made her think Virgil would want to see us, she answered by flashing her wrist with the bracelet—the bright turquoise and dark garnet.

As we drove the desert flared out in a magnificent sunset, a palette that kept adding and removing a spectrum of color, eventually mellowing to a bruise as dusk gathered over the land. We were almost by ourselves, very few cars on the interstate, distant headlights as small as pinpricks, stars that gradually became larger and ended in small yellow disks, like fireflies, because the opposite lanes of the highway were pretty far away. In this high desert the lingering subtle transition from day to night felt sacred and dramatic. Beatrice and I took our leave of this great landscape . . . maybe for good.

We arrived at the roadside stand and trailer around 9:00. A light shone in the trailer but also a blazing campfire about 20 yards in back of the trailer, silhouette patterns jittering against a wall of rock. Virgil stood near the fire and he watched us approach with no reaction, as if he’d been expecting us. He glanced at the silver cuff, his work, on Beatrice’s wrist. A boar’s head had been set up on a rock near the fire. In the shifting firelight the head bore a tusked grimace, a demon snarl, but with layers of meaning as if its totem spirit was being invoked during a peyote ceremony. A few minutes later the porcine face appeared benign, almost comical, and Virgil didn’t seem embarrassed by the strangeness of displaying the boar’s head in our presence.

“It was a bow kill,” he told us. “I made sausage from the meat and paint brushes with the hide. Durable paint brushes.”

“Do you live here?”

“My place is a few miles down the road, but I do a lot of work in the trailer and sometimes if I’m working late I’ll sleep here.”

In the firelight Virgil’s face appeared all planes and angles, chiseled bones dappled with quivering shadow, strands of gray hair braided into the black. He was handsome in a gentle, introverted way, not rugged or glamorous, more like pictures of Jesus I’d remembered from Sunday school books. His truer affect was that of a bottomless vessel and also someone who mirrored you. No discernible ego. In that respect he was something of an anti-Bob Lane.

“I was young, in my teens when they started construction on the first dome, on Dichi zhi d’zil, also known as Blake’s Peak. The Papago tribal elders believed that looking deeper into the heavens was like looking into another aspect or manifestation of God because the land and water and world beneath the land and water were God too. Our God doesn’t live in the sky alone, like some angry old man with a white beard; he resides in all the elements, he’s everywhere and he’s one among other gods. But the elders were fascinated by the revelation that they could see thousands more stars with these instruments and that the night sky was greater than what they were able to see with the naked eye. It was a powerful revelation for them. And the scientists, the astronomers with their telescopes or ‘long eyes’, weren’t violent or warring and they would not pollute sacred land for the sake of some stupid commercial development or tourist attraction. The idea of an observatory was good for all men though certain conditions would have to be agreed upon and the history and sacredness of Dichi zhi d’zil respected and honored through education and cultural exchange.  Unlike so much Indian land, our history would remain a presence, would not be erased or obliterated. At the time I thought the elders were being a little silly, but that was mostly due to my being “modern” and “Americanized.” I don’t see them that way anymore.

“I’d been attending a private secondary school off the reservation, but I’d visited the mountain a number of times as a boy and was totally inspired by the news about an observatory. I was at the private school because of my academic talent and I had a white sponsor named Mrs. Shaw. I excelled in math, physics and the sciences overall, and was on track to receive a scholarship to the University of Arizona when I became a senior. So when the observatory construction got underway, I volunteered to help out—digging, hauling, bringing coffee—you name it, whatever the project leaders asked me to do. The first mirror was the 16-inch, reflector—small, by comparison to what came after—but once Dr. McEvoy had let me use that scope I was hooked from that point onward. I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I’m forever indebted to McEvoy for giving me that opportunity. I believe he saw something in me and wanted to introduce me to astronomy and all its possibilities, nurture me as a budding astronomer. In college I worked summers and winter break as an intern at the Empyrean. Winter was an ideal time. And after graduating college I assisted as a graduate student and that’s how I knew Adam Greenfield. But I left graduate school and made the decision not to pursue astronomy and physics professionally.”

“What made you stop?” Beatrice asked him.

“I stayed a week or two in the desert ingesting peyote and psilocybin,” Virgil confessed with a self-deprecating laugh. “Not to downplay or trivialize the experience. It was 1968 and during my mind-altering vacation I came to realize that my early love for the stars and planets and meteors, nebulae—all of it—had been tainted or compromised in some way. My revelation was that in the past year at the Empyrean I’d been going through the motions observing stars, poring over catalogs, following coordinates and sequences, and I was losing my passion, the work had grown routine and soulless, and I realized that what I really loved was using my hands, making things. On one of three days I’d hallucinated during that week, I realized I was staring for a long time—maybe a couple hours—at this ring my grandmother had given me years before. The ring wasn’t particularly well-made or significant, but for me it came to possess an intrinsic perfection I could not describe. As soon as I returned from this “vision quest” vacation, I started making jewelry. And I never really quit astronomy. Like you, I’m still an amateur astronomer and I’ve retained quite a lot of knowledge from my time at the observatory and have also learned some new things along the way. I have a couple telescopes in the trailer. I’ll bring them out.”

Beatrice mentioned her scorpion sting and Virgil gave her a complicit smile.

“I’ve been stung over a dozen times,” he said. “Let’s see.”

Beatrice removed her shoe and placed her bare foot on a rock not far from the fire ring, the firelight bronzing her skin. Virgil crouched and studied her ankle.

“That’s a nice dressing.”

“Someone on the Empyrean medical staff,” I said.

He solemnly peeled away the gauze and examined the wound in the same manner in which he’d stared into Beatrice’s eyes a few days earlier, a stare that was blank and pitiless, non-judging, emotionally neutral, somewhat clinical, and yet managed to take in everything that mattered, returning the essence, stripping away the extraneous and unimportant. Virgil’s eye obviously played a big part in the intricate precision and design of his jewelry.

“He got you good. That area by the ankle and Achilles’ tendon is pretty tender unless you go barefoot often.”

“What about my baby?” Beatrice said plaintively.

“Don’t worry about it. The baby will be fine.”

I recalled Beatrice’s ascent to the Empyrean at dawn, her dry and naked ascent, as if her body had been made of cinders. It was still the same day but already felt like a week ago.

Virgil entered his trailer and soon returned with two telescopes.

“We’re going to climb up that ridge,” he said, pointing. “It will take about 15 minutes. The view is perfect from there.”

We walked toward the ridge. I recognized one of the telescopes as a Brainchild Scientific model; the other one was a Schmidt-Cassegrain 9000, not unlike the scope with which I’d discovered Scorpius-429, Burns and Allen. We were soon far enough away from campfire glare, looking down on an expanse as dark as a sea of ink. From the horizon to the zenith the sky was littered with burning embers, and when you pointed the binoculars anywhere those embers multiplied to a dizzying array in the greater depth of field. I became more impressed by Virgil’s knowledge regarding the Main Sequence and Red Shift and also his studies and comments on dark matter, and I kept forgetting that Virgil had logged many hours at the Empyrean and had still kept up with astronomy over the years (we even subscribed to most of the same astronomy magazines). The three of us took turns with the two telescopes and binoculars and we searched for the Butterfly Nebula because Scorpius was just visible on the southern horizon. Behind us the distant flash and shadow of the campfire, but here we stood in the stillness of Heaven, a sea of countless suns, of binaries and distant galaxies. I was with two friends, two kindred spirits, maybe the closest friends I’d ever known, and while I ached to be home, I knew there would never be another moment quite like this one for a long time, if ever.

Our conversation veered to the Native American museum and then Navajo and Pueblo cosmology and then wandered to the giant Radio Array and SETI and the overwhelming statistical probability in favor of life elsewhere in the universe. And while Beatrice had been obsessed about seeing Virgil, and though I was totally enchanted by the time being spent with him, a part of me was anxious to get on the road after the news I’d received from Gladys. I wanted to be home now—the strangest allure and longing for home I’d felt in years. And I was torn because both Gladys and Beatrice now carried a child of mine and they were equally important in my eyes. I wanted to be home with Gladys and here with Beatrice at the same time. I was straddling a fulcrum. I’d never expected

this. . . .

. . . and Beatrice was falling in love again. I could see her unfolding love in the way she behaved toward Virgil, the same way she had behaved toward me on those first crystalline evenings we’d spent together doing astronomy, and to a lesser extent the way she had behaved toward Eve. Maybe it was something about telescopes, but I realized that her perpetually being smitten had more to do with whenever a new person she found attractive walked into her life. I thought I understood Beatrice for the first time, sensing my understanding came from our hallucinogenic night in the pickup truck under the stars and our entire week overall. I believe I’d come to know her better. Her attractiveness fueled and inspired her being attracted to, and that had certainly happened with Laura. For Beatrice, to love and be loved defined her, they were practically one and the same, but it was an indiscriminate love impartial to gender, age or race, and a love that might sometimes invite trouble or pain or misunderstanding. She now paid a great deal of attention to Virgil, and I noticed with a belated compassion and wisdom that any jealousy I had previously harbored was suddenly absent. Beatrice made Virgil the center of her interest—the radiant and passionate center—but Virgil did not seem attracted to Beatrice and wouldn’t reciprocate her attention which only made her efforts all the more obvious and desperate. Virgil treated Beatrice the way he treated everyone—politely, respectfully, as a friend— the very quality Beatrice should have sought in him to begin with. Virgil maintained this Zen-like neutrality in his interactions with people. I’d been told I had some of that trait in me too, another similarity with Virgil. Maybe we were spiritual twins, but I still wanted to leave and get home.

We returned to the campfire. Virgil stoked the fire and then headed into the trailer to make some coffee. I welcomed the coffee because Beatrice and I were going to pull a redeye and the caffeine would help. In silence the three of us watched the fire, mesmerized by the flames dancing from mesquite and pin oak. Though I may have been restless to get on the road, Beatrice stayed rooted to the spot between Virgil and me. I could tell she didn’t want to be anywhere else. Maybe Virgil was my shadow self or I his shadow self. He possessed more attributes of the unconscious side: wild uninhibited western landscapes, darker skin and hair, spiritual and creative elements as manifested in his jewelry work. He would have had to appear on this trip in one form or another, sprung from the clay of my own fears and uncertainty. I would have needed to invent him. He was less self-possessed and rigid than me, and I was already less self-possessed and rigid than I’d been prior to undertaking the Empyrean trip with Beatrice. Virgil might have been living proof of my other untapped possibilities and Beatrice had been the catalyst.

A few minutes before we bade goodbye to Virgil, and as if anticipating our departure, he turned to us and said: “I can tell you’re good people. I want you to know that everything I create and sell carries an ethical weight. Not ethics in the Dualistic/Christian/Western Civilization confusion, nothing as simplistic as black-or-white and either-or—nothing like that. Instead, it’s more like: Why did I make this? Is the thing imbued with a spirit, a sublime energy? My inner vision? What is the piece I make trying to say about me and my people, my ancestors, and what will the piece mean to the person I sell it to, if I decide to sell it to them? How will they appraise and think about the ring, or bracelet, or necklace they just bought? What is value? What is the difference between raw material and intrinsic worth?  Will the buyer realize the centuries that factor into their bracelet? The gods and myths that underpin it? The stories? The sacred minerals and ore from which it emerged? Or is the piece merely something nice to wear? Will the purchase of it stay with the owner throughout their life? And will they pass it down as a family heirloom?  For instance, you might leave that bracelet for your son when he’s a young man.”

 

Later, driving at 2:00 in the morning, I watched Beatrice in the passenger’s seat, her face suspended like a lantern in the window’s dim reflection, lost in thought.

“I could have stayed a lot longer,” she said.

“Where? At the Empyrean? Or with Virgil?”

“Both. . .”

Tired, I allowed her words to seep in.

“You have Laura to go back to,” I reminded her.

Still staring out her window.

“Laura never misses anyone . . . it’s just who she is. You think Gladys misses you?”

“Maybe.”

I hadn’t told Beatrice about the news I’d gotten from Gladys. I wouldn’t tell her.

“But I thought she hated you.”

“She does, but she might still miss me. There’s a weird kind of comfort in hatred once it becomes familiar to you, once it becomes routine. The object of your hatred becomes like a bad habit maybe.”

Beatrice pondered this for a minute or two. The canyons were veiled in moonlight: organ pipes of stone, gaunt and spectral, an ancient place of power and ceremony.

“I don’t ever want to reach that point,” she finally said. “How do you live every day with hatred in your heart or with the knowledge that someone hates you?”

I assumed that because of her age Beatrice didn’t yet understand a long-term relationship dynamic—or one of them. I felt a bit smug.

“Learn to love yourself and make peace with the world. That’s how.”

She turned and stared at me, profoundly skeptical and indulgent.

“Sounds pretty facile, Soren. I’m not letting you off that easily. You can’t truly make peace with the world if hate is hanging around your home. You have to find a way to lose the hatred.”

And oddly, that may have already happened but through no effort of mine. I’d call it divine intervention, if I believed in that sort of thing.

 

 

 

Stung

We must have fallen asleep for a few hours before dawn. I was awakened by the sun and Beatrice was no longer at my side. Her denim cutoffs, tank top, and panties were still in the truck bed, and I realized that I must have slipped my clothes back on because the night temperature had plummeted and I’d been freezing, even inside my down sleeping bag. Although it wasn’t long past dawn, the sun was already warm for mid-April. The psychedelic mushrooms had mostly worn off and I felt cleansed being in the desert at the break of day after a crazy yet elegiac night . . . but where had Beatrice gone?

 
And then I saw her, some hundred yards away, scaling the lower canyon wall, free climbing. I knew that Beatrice liked to shed her clothes; I’d seen her do it before but never outdoors and in the desert. It was as if she were making her body a microcosm of the desert, shorn of clothing the way the landscape she now embraced was stripped of all but its spring flora; the color, texture and line of her taut glowing flesh absorbed in the bosky backdrop that enfolded her like a lion’s hide. The movement of her limbs appeared more animated and lithe against the solidity of the landscape. Her reddish-gold-brown hair poured down the middle of her back and fanned several inches above the whiteness of her buttocks. After last night I loved her more than ever. Before this morning I would have viewed her as Salome’ but in the moment I simply noted her nudity, admiring every natural step she made on the talus and scree. Above and in the distance the domes of the Empyrean Observatory were studded on the crown of Blake’s Peak, pillboxes glaring white. I ran over to the base of the canyon wall and stood beneath the crevices and outcroppings.

“There are rattlesnakes,” I shouted.

“I’ll be careful,” she hollered back, scaling a steeper ascent.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To the observatory.”

“But that’s an altitude of 12,000 feet!”

“So?”

“I can’t imagine you doing the last thousand. Really. It’s almost a sheer vertical drop.”

“I’m a climber. I love to climb.”

“You’ll embarrass me.”

She laughed. Caroming echoes.

“You’ll lose the baby.”

“No I won’t”

After 15 weeks Beatrice pretty much had the same body except the gradual mound of her belly, like a lenticular galaxy viewed on edge, like Centaur-A NGC-5128. The easy elastic curve of her stomach, last night and this morning, enhanced her allure . . . the bright Empyrean buildings above us . . . Beatrice in profile, knee and lower thigh pressed against obsidian, fingers jammed in a dihedral, the vulnerable slope of her belly . . . I envisioned a 1950s Science Fiction B-movie and expected any moment to see an irradiated mutation of a giant ant or tarantula crawl over the peak of the observatory and descend upon Beatrice, threatening to pin her in mandibles and enormous lacquered fangs. She still looked safe, though, in her sun-heated flesh, and now having climbed as high as she dared to climb, was making her way back to the ground and to me.

And then she screamed. She stumbled and skipped backwards, one hand clutching the ankle and calf of her left leg, lifting it off the ground and jumping on the good leg. I ran towards her but stopped a few feet short of the scorpion, still advancing, its contorted thorax reared for another strike, curled symmetrical pincers, tail an enormous crimped comma terminating in a barb. I grabbed a semi-petrified stick of Pin Oak, and holding one end of it like a tomahawk or boomerang, flung it at the scorpion, a good strike, not enough to kill or maim but enough to send it scurrying away, etching its trail of retreat in the coarse sand.

“Oh my God! Crazy pain!”

“Let’s see . . .”

A small red circle, like the image of the sun on the Japanese flag, swelled on the lower side of her right leg near the Achilles tendon.

“Soren!”

“Please stay calm. Relax. I’ll get you treatment right away. If you panic it will only increase your heart rate and the venom will spread faster.”

Fortunately, the cooler in the bed of the pickup still had a small amount of ice, and I had Beatrice hold the melting ice on her sting area to numb it. I then draped her arm over my shoulder and we hobbled together, as if she were war wounded, back to the pickup and I helped her dress, putting on jeans and my white T-shirt instead of the cutoffs. I made her raise her leg and prop it on the cooler and sleeping bags before I jumped in the driver’s seat. She never groaned or winced, but her look told me I should hurry. I floored the truck up the mountainside on those patches of road where the curves were not too treacherous. We checked in at the Empyrean and security notified the infirmary immediately. I was told that Adam and Eve had already left. As we waited for someone to bring a gurney, I could feel the labored inflation of her small light rib cage and remembered the bird skeleton she’d stared at on a day that seemed much longer than half a year ago.

“Is it a bark scorpion?” the medic asked us. “They’re more toxic.”

“Do you think it’s a bark scorpion?”

He shrugged. “No way of knowing unless you bring it in.”

The medic examined the sting closely while applying ice and a tiny bit of hydrocortisone. Beatrice had already swallowed the acetaminophen.

“The pain is not as bad,” she said, “but it’s still pretty bad and there’s a tingling sensation. A lot of tingling going on.”

The medic continued to apply cold pressure. He studied the wound between applications of ice.
“That’s normal . . . . Move like a butterfly, sting like a scorpion,” he said, paraphrasing Muhammed Ali.

“I’m pregnant,” Beatrice said.

The medic looked at her, his face neutral and bland but not hostile. He wore gold rimmed glasses and had the beginnings of a red beard, like a loose nest of rust.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “It’s an hour’s drive to the hospital. If we keep you for several hours, under watch, keep you here for the rest of the morning, you and your baby should be fine. The wound is already subsiding, there are no muscle spasms or evidence of neurotoxicity and you’re healthy. I don’t think you or the fetus is in any danger. Let’s keep an eye on it, monitor your pulse and blood pressure and continue with the icing, maybe a little more acetaminophen. If you continue to improve, we can probably let you go by noon.”

Beatrice turned to me and then to the medic.

“Okay, I don’t want to risk anything. Let’s stay here.”

We decided that I would wait while they kept Beatrice in the infirmary. There didn’t seem to be much point in driving to the Caritas Motel for a couple hours and then driving back. The staff had also made an emergency call to bring an MD on site and check out Beatrice. I mostly stayed by her bedside, reading National Geographic magazine. There was an article about the new Space Shuttle and a launch planned for April 1981, one year from now. Beatrice wasn’t given a sedative or pain killer because of the pregnancy, but she’d been up all night and the previous two nights with little rest, and presently, after the shock and pain of the scorpion sting and the accompanying adrenalin surge, she fell into a deep sleep. Before drifting off, she mentioned something about us having to stop and see Virgil on our way home, but I’d mistaken her comment for a mildly delirious utterance because of the shock.

I walked to the observatory cafeteria for some breakfast, but feeling drained and off kilter from the psilocybin mushrooms I discovered I wasn’t all that hungry. It was still early morning, about 8:30. I had grapefruit juice, coffee, and a sweet roll. I knew that in a few more hours I would be starving but this light fare seemed good enough at the moment. I thought that because of the Empyrean Observatory with Beatrice and particularly last night, that she would not cut me out or deny me access to our baby. I felt it acutely as I was sitting by her on the infirmary bed, holding her hand, and I also felt it when we tossed out a string of baby names while lying in the back of the pickup, stoned out of our gourds and gazing at the constellations. I believed her earlier position and attitude toward me had softened, and I was certain I would be more involved in the life of this coming boy or girl . . . the morning dragged on. My sense of hearing became especially sharp. I could hear everything, and with this ringing hollowness in my mind and deep pit in my body and soul, I felt I was a Buddhist vessel for all the pain and sadness and suffering in the world. I returned to Beatrice’s room. She was now awake and I’d brought her some orange juice from the cafeteria. Her earlier free-spirited aplomb had been replaced by a worried expression but I think we both felt certain that the fetus was okay, that the baby would be fine as she was fond of saying. We made small talk while waiting for the infirmary to release her. Occasionally she touched my hand.

The doctor had not found anything wrong from the scorpion sting and the welt was nearly gone. They released Beatrice released around 11:30. We drove back to the Caritas Motel, but instead of entering her own room she followed me into my room and instantly plopped on the bed and fell fast asleep, her aura tracing the length of her spine and lovely body clad in blue jeans and my white T-shirt, her Botticelli face aglow in the film noir grid of light and shadow that fell through the cheap motel blinds. It was a pitiable room in a pitiable lodging ironically named the Caritas, the kind of room a travelling salesman may have stayed at in a bygone era. I sat in a mildewed stuffed chair next to a small laminated table and reading lamp and watched Beatrice sleep. I lost track of time. A previous occupant of this room had taken the Gideon Bible from its bedside drawer and left it on the table next to me. I placed the bible on my lap and opened it to a verse in the Book of Job.

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, Or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth a constellation in its season, And guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, Or fix their rule over the earth?

I became aware of noises, a cacophony of all the sounds of existence: a baby wailing in one of the rooms; a blaring of Saturday morning cartoons in the same room or a different one; a couple arguing, shouting and slamming doors, shattered glass; kids yelling in the blaring cartoon room and a man in a neighboring room pounding his fist on the wall for them to shut up and turn the noise down; another couple making love, a different kind of pounding on the wall mingled with moans and “yes” and rising excitement and more “yes, yes”; a loud midday news cast overlaid with the wheezing and hacking of an elderly man with emphysema and a portable oxygen tank. I could not clearly separate or single out an individual sound; they all mashed and bled into each other. Beatrice still slept, oblivious to the cacophony, and I felt as if I were at the Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Telescope sifting through all the background signals in the universe. And I was also hearing the cycle of life in this rundown motel, starting with infancy and then childhood (cartoons, shouts) followed by love and sex which may or may not lead to children, but if so then a parental return to your own childhood vicariously, and then maybe marital discord possibly leading to estrangement and divorce and being alone again at some point (angrily banging your fist on some wall, somewhere), to the final wheezing and hacking of old age and illness. We come into the world alone and leave it alone, and the pathetic wrenching gasp for air behind one of those flaking paint doors carried that same universal aloneness as the unattended screaming baby and even the lovers who may deny aloneness in the act but soon know its grip in the wake of climax and orgasm.

In the midst of the motel din I heard the phone ring. It rang several times. I was delirious and borderline paranoid, suspecting I’d broken some unknown provincial law. Then I thought maybe it was Adam Greenfield calling from the Empyrean to inquire about Beatrice and the scorpion sting . . . to see how Beatrice was doing.

But it was Gladys, my putative wife, her voice a hesitant, far away chirping.

“Where have you been?”

“Mostly at the observatory. I called you Thursday night and left a message on the answering machine. I’ll be leaving late this afternoon.”

I had mostly forgotten Gladys since leaving New Jersey last Monday. Not so much out of willful neglect as much as the variety and richness of new experience I’d encountered traveling with Beatrice to the desert and our nights at the Empyrean and in the canyon. To be honest I often didn’t think of Gladys when I was at home. Though I had wanted to talk with her and had called her once, I took her calling me now as something of an affront, neurotically intrusive, and an inopportune time if ever there was one.

“Be careful driving,” she said.

“Of course.”

We chatted for a minute or two, and I was only half listening to her, until:

“I have some news. I was going to wait and save it but I couldn’t wait. I just found out for certain yesterday.”

“Found out what?”

“We’re going to have a baby!”

I was suddenly caught in a great centrifuge.

Gladys: “Are you okay? You don’t sound excited.”

“Yes, I’m okay,” I said, “but a little stunned. I had no idea . . . I mean, after all the years we tried. I’m not sure what to say.”

“Say you love me,” Gladys said, a slight petulance in her voice. “You sound confused or disoriented.”

“No, just tired. Sorry. I’ve been up late at the observatory every night.”

“Are you happy we’re going to have a baby?”

“Of course I’m happy. I’m thrilled about it.”

“It was New Years,” she reminded me.

“I kind of surmised.”

“You always wanted to be a father. Have a child with a telescope to look through with you.”

“Yes, I did. Well, more than the telescope aspect. I guess my wish is finally coming true,” I said, detecting the false note in my voice. “Thank you so much.”

“I should be thanking you for making me a Mommy.”

“We should thank each other then. Come to think of it, we just did,” I said with a nervous laugh.”

“Come home,” Gladys said.

“Soon . . . I promise.”

While Beatrice slept I left the Caritas and drove to the nearest convenience store to buy a fifth of Jack Daniels. Back at the motel I removed the paper wrapper from one of the glasses they place on a small tray in the bathroom and proceeded to fill it most of the way with bourbon, about six ounces’ worth. My head was swimming with new information and yet paradoxically I felt alert and calm. The whiskey went down easy, half in celebration of my pending dual fatherhood and half to gird my loins for what the future may bring. . . . Gladys was 37 and we’d been married nearly 17 years. She’d already had the amnio test and her doctor had told her she could have the baby. She had wanted to wait until after the amnio test before letting me know, just in case. I tried to process everything happening at once: Beatrice and the coming baby; Gladys and the coming baby; Burns and Allen; nights at the Empyrean; the Butterfly Nebula; Virgil and the bracelet; hallucinating on mushrooms under the natural dome of stars but often seeing them as they’d appeared in the Empyrean Observatory; the alien visitation that Beatrice and I had telepathically imagined with a couple verbal cues; love with Beatrice; the scorpion sting; all the painful sounds of life on this planet sealed in the Caritas Motel; the desert and its peoples and their stories; the heartbreaking solitary view of mesa from atop Blake’s Peak. It was a dizzying vertiginous kaleidoscope of everything and nothing, the world yielding up all her secrets and spreading her legs for me with each second I paused and allowed myself to notice.

“What are you doing?”

Beatrice had gotten up and stood alongside the bed, her face a bit slack and wan, a ‘where am I?’ expression. I’d been so lost in bourbon and random thought that I’d missed her waking up. She saw the glass in my hand and saw the bottle. Her blue and brown eyes widened.

“My God, you’re drinking whiskey! Are you still coming down from the mushrooms?”

I smiled, staring at her.

“It’s 2:00 in the afternoon!” she realized. “We have to be out of here in an hour! I’m going to pack.”

I didn’t say anything. I stood up and approached Beatrice, my whiskey breath a fog of grain spirits that quickly enveloped us both. She was still drowsy and muttered my name, followed by the meekest “no” of resistance I had ever heard. I put my arms around her and kissed her long and hard and then tumbled her down onto the bed, seizing the world.