1.

Laura often brought Wyatt-Edwin into Brainchild Scientific. Everyone loved him, watching as he dashed around among the optic wheels, rock polishers, and model dinosaurs. Wyatt-Edwin spent most of his time playing with optics experiments, also with books on stars and planets, and I believed that the store was where the convergence of science and art had begun for him. The store also became the place where we had gotten to spend time together. The boy looked up to me, because I ran the store and knew a lot about the kits, the games and gadgets, frozen creatures, taxonomy, telescopes, mechanics, electricity. My employees, most of whom had never seen Beatrice and knew that Laura was a lesbian, suspected that Wyatt-Edwin might have been my son, but they could not make the connection with Laura, and they never spoke of it. They certainly never said a word whenever I brought Ramona to the store. Though Ramona and Wyatt-Edwin attended different grade schools, Ramona had met Laura, and she and Wyatt-Ediwin may have talked about the store on occasion.

In my son’s excitement, in his serious intention to learn, I saw his mother seven or eight years earlier, and I wondered too if Wyatt-Edwin’s strange and powerful affinity with Brainchild Scientific hadn’t something to do with the fact that he’d been conceived here.

2.

I used to question whether they telepathically knew, whether some tic or quirk in one’s behavior might somehow clue the other one, resulting in a brief, curious stare for no apparent reason, locking the eyes across an auditorium or playing field, the unwitting, impolite looks that kids were inclined to do before adult mores repressed the behavior. Ramona with her long dark hair and brown eyes and perfect smile, her braids, or braid, dangling, flapping as she walks toward the school with girlfriends . . . chatter, giggles, shrieks . . . Ramona almost like a Mexican girl standing in front of a mission chapel . . . and Wyatt-Edwin, fair, blue-eyed, the one who’d inherited both Beatrice’s and my Swedish genes . . . Wyatt-Edwin running on the soccer field with his friends, horsing around, seemingly happy though masking the pain of his mother . . . my blue-eyed son and brown-eyed daughter invoked Beatrice and her heterochromia, as if, in spite of Gladys’ maternity, these two loomed as manifestations of Beatrice and her otherworldly eyes. Kids like a binary star, circling each other from the relative distance of separate schools, their orbits occasionally moving closer on the playground or during a school program. But like most kids, they’d been aware of each other more than I had though.

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My mother’s relatives on Long Island still had a pianola or player piano in their house, and all the relatives and I were standing in front of it, in the living room, not far from the front door. A tube of paper and a metal cylinder sprouted tines that looked like small animal teeth. One of my mother’s cousins (don’t remember which one, it was a large family) started the player and it was pure magic, that rickety metallic sound and the older relatives immediately singing along! “A Bicycle Built for Two” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Despite the compromised tone of the player piano you heard the melody, the most needed element for a sing-along. Having come from the World’s Fair and with all the frenzied progress assaulting one’s senses, and all the high-rise projects going up all over the city, and spaceships, and everything made from plastic injection molds, hearing this player piano and the crooning of older simpler tunes was a pleasant and balmy nostalgia, a parasol stroll down the tree-flowered lane into the Past, like Rod Serling’s great and most personal teleplay and story, “Walking Distance.” For better or worse you sensed that, two-thirds of the way through the crazy 20th Century, a huge gulf yawned between the 1960s and the century’s early years when my grandma and her siblings were kids like me. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” compared with the current number 1 chart topper, “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction).” The player piano was pretty much the last vestige of familial solidarity. In the early days it had been the hearth fire with reading and conversation, and maybe later a piano. Then during the gaslight period, a piano in the parlor or drawing room, which in many cases was replaced by a Victrola and then a radio as the family gathered for news broadcasts or their favorite serialized shows. And finally there was television—one television with black and white images and then later color—which provided some of the largest collective experiences of our nation . . . no more.

*

During his time in the merchant marine my grandfather had made it a point to ride a roller coaster in every port he visited, if there was one to ride: the higher, wilder, and crazier the roller coaster the better. According to family lore, he would ride the coaster once, get off and drink a beer, and then ride again, get off and drink another beer and then ride again, and so on. If he really liked the roller coaster, he would ride it an absurd number of times. Supposedly his favorite one was in Boston, which one night he’d ridden a total of 17 times! And that would have also meant 16 or 17 beers! Most likely he’d stopped after 10 or 12 beers, bearing in mind that he was the ship’s captain . . . were the roller coasters as good in other countries? As safe? I don’t think it would have mattered to him.

1.

She visits at least once a month, more often if it’s a holiday month. She needs me to see that things are alright with her, and I know that they are in spite of me and our past. After the divorce, her mother had resorted to a good deal of brainwashing, but not enough, it seemed, to create a lasting severance between father and daughter . . . . She will graduate in May from Penn, and begin applying to graduate school next year. She’s matured, she’s figured things out, and she still wants this connection, though I question the nature and depth of the connection she seeks. I’m 61 years old and unemployed, and I have little to offer that would help her with her career and life. Ramona wants to become a microbiologist. After all the years I had instructed her to look outward, through a telescope, Ramona’s passion now is to go in the other direction. A microscope.

“You’re stagnating here,” she tells me. “You should take a trip.”

“And where would I go?”

“That’s for you to figure out.”

“Hmm. Maybe after you graduate. . .”

“Perfect! I can house sit while you’re gone.”

She fills the tea kettle with water and places it on the stove, a ritual she follows on most of her visits. She is a beautiful, 21-year-old woman who doesn’t seem to have inherited her mother or father’s genes when it comes to looks.

“How’s Laura, by the way? Have you seen her?”

“Saw her a few weeks ago . . . she’s good  . . . designing web pages . . . has a girlfriend.”

“I’m glad that she picked up marketable skills before your business died.”

“Me too. Laura’s been through a lot.”

Ramona stares at me. A wry turn of her mouth.

“Haven’t we all.”

The conversation switches to Wyatt.

“He may go out there to live next year. He wants those night skies,” she says.

“Really? He paints from NASA Hubble images! Maybe he wants to be closer to his mother.”

“You’re in your 60s now,” she says to me, “and years ago you had some pretty incredible experiences. You don’t need to work. Treat yourself for a change. Travel. Visit a few observatories.”

“I gave that up, remember?”

“You’re being stubborn and silly. Start again. You’ve left the glass room exactly as it was when you stopped looking through telescopes, except for the ‘tropical rain forest.’ You could start again at any time, with or without moss and lianas, and parrots! Find yourself!”

The cliché sounds more like a threat.

“I look at stars nearly every night,” I remind her.

“Yeah, outside with the naked eye.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“’You are so Scandinavian. Gloomy. Look, it’s ‘Haleing’ The sky has taken on that weird hyper-ionized tint.”

I’m well aware that, because of our past, Ramona likes to indulge her sarcasm at my expense, and I am not offended or angered. There is mild reproach in her voice, though the reproach is more reasoned and gentle than the punishing shrillness of her mother. Late February and March is not a particularly good time for her or me when I think of it. Though five years ago at this time I’d hung on every detail of Comet Hale-Bopp and became totally preoccupied with the comet, Ramona had stopped observing the comet with me. By early 1997 she had lost all interest in astronomy in spite of my cajoling her to join me, because Hale-Bopp was approaching perihelion. By the summer of ‘97 she and her mother had moved out and I swore off telescopes, as if it had been some nasty habit of 35 years. Instead, I started to fill the glass room with plants. I brought in Vincas, Philodendron and Cylamen then added several palms, Philodendron, Cymbidiums, African Violets, Anthurium, Birds of Paradise, giant cut leaf Ferns, Rubber Plants, Bromeliads. Over time the room assumed a jungle-like character: rank foliage obscuring the mission-style table stacked with my star charts and maps, untouched for four-and-a-half years or more; giant ferns and cut leaf towering to the ceiling, vines and tendrils  coiling around and ensnaring the silver barrels of the smaller telescopes, a fascinating juxtaposition contrasting the cold inorganic elegance of astronomical science with the Edenesque organic fertility of earth. A year later I acquired a couple Macaw parrots to match the tropical decor. I named the parrots George and Gracie though I never intended on using the pair for breeding purposes. At night they mostly sleep outside their cage on the limb of a rubber plant or palm tree. I occasionally find hardened droppings on a telescope, but I no longer care.

Ramona has a passion for poetry and poets. Odd, for a would-be microbiologist, or maybe her passion is not that odd as a means of self-examination. She likes to quote the famous poem of Yeats where “. . . things fall apart/the center cannot hold . . .” She tells me those lines make her think of our family, including Laura, Wyatt-Edwin, and also Beatrice. She isn’t sure, in our case, that things actually did fall apart, and prefers to view it as a rearrangement, and one where the gravitational glue is stronger than ever. It’s possible. The laws of attraction are not always predetermined. Anarchy and order, motion, entropy, may all be willed illusion. The atomic and sub-atomic levels are in constant flux.

 

2.

“I need a place to live.”

“I thought we’d already established that.”

“Kind of. I mentioned house sitting for you. Not exactly a plan. I need somewhere to live during the summer and maybe through next fall until I can get a place of my own.”

“Tired of your mother?” I ask.

“A little . . .” She finishes her tea and stands up to take our cups to the sink. “The problem is Bert.”

Bert is Gladys’s new husband, a middle manager (Director? VP?) at her marketing firm.

“He’s kind of weird,” Ramona explains. “Not like the way you’re weird, but controlling, uptight, rigid, inflexible, with draconian rules, like their house is a place for him to try out models of boorish efficiency.”

I laugh.

“He never had children,” Ramona adds. “Maybe that’s the reason.”

“And Mom?”

“She had children—a child.”

“Ha-ha.”

“Mom is mostly indifferent to my presence.”

“Lovely . . . does Bert pay attention to her? Does he treat her well?”

“I don’t know . . . she seems happy.”

“You can stay here as long as you like,” I tell her.

“Thank you!”

“And I may not be here much of the time.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“I plan on travelling . . . your suggestion, remember?”

“Please don’t think I have some ulterior motive to get you out of the house.”

“What’s his name?”

My comment breaks her up, penetrates to the core of her wit, though her laughter is a bit excessive, a result, perhaps, of nervous truth. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut. I know she had lovers in college (don’t know how many), and I wonder who among them had heard the story. I doubt she would have bothered to divulge. But what will happen when it’s a long-term boyfriend, or even a husband? What, if anything, might he eventually hear in the hoarse night whispers of flesh and pillows? And how will she shape and set up her narrative? How does one risk bringing that bleak subterranean information to the surface without fear of violent censure? Without fear of immediate rejection and loss?

“I’m not seeing anyone at the moment,” she says, ominously.

One night she’d worked late, and had only drunk one glass of wine when she decided to go outside and walk in the desert. It was freezing cold and she had wrapped herself in his jacket. She recalled how in her dream the stars had all begun to fall like snow, and she now stood on an expanse of snow, a fine glittering mantle settling on the desert plateau for miles in every direction. On each corner of the plateau stood someone important from her life: North was Virgil; Soren in the East; Laura in the West; Wyatt to the South. The figures stood unmoving, like pieces on a chessboard. She called their names, and the calling of their names lingered and floated up on the black tide, floated up to the Dog and the Hunter.  They approached her in a short line, and one by one stepped up and stared at her without saying a word, only the eternal stare, and she began to weep, trying to hug everyone but the shapes were mist and vapor, and putting her arms around the ghost of Virgil made her cry the most. The snow then began to race under her feet, a swift white carpet, and she walked faster, taking long fast steps for fear of falling as if she were on a flat escalator in an airport. And as she strode, members of the tribe appeared alongside her: two at first, flanking her, soon others, dozens more, keeping pace with her on the racing snow and whispering, a hastened sibilance, a recitation, words that sounded absurd and meaningless, like dream gibberish, and yet somehow healing her, strange balm for her aging soul, voices high and low, soprano, alto, and baritone, a choir of whispers, in pointed rhythm, in tones meant to heal and not the words themselves, arbitrary symbols designed specifically for the listener . . . Animals then joined the people: coyotes, bears, cougars, dogs, hawks, owls, ravens, crows, buzzards, sparrows, grackles, lizards, snakes, spiders, scorpions. They eventually took their leave of her—men, women, children and beasts. The racing snow abruptly stopped, and she stepped off the edge of the plateau and into outer space.

She was drifting slowly down through the void and somehow buoyant on thin air, like a cork on water, a state of near weightlessness. She waved her arms. At one moment, instead of falling, she realized she was ascending, though it was difficult to get her bearings. She saw a distant object and felt herself being pulled toward it. The object enlarged, became a giant cylinder, and she recognized the Primum Mobile telescope and was relieved at the sight of a life raft that may carry her to safe harbor. She floated toward the telescope as if  pushed by a divine breath. She grabbed a spoke of an adjustment wheel about as wide as she was tall, and hoisted herself up, a tiny pointless creature on the enormous, slowly turning barrel, a grand silver lathe immersed in the coal black sea of space. But she kept slipping, losing her footing, so she lay down on her stomach, making an X with her arms and legs, gripping the gleaming alloy skin of the telescope as it traveled through her universe. The cylinder’s turning had been steady and gradual and eventually she found herself on the underside of it and could no longer hang on. And out of the darkness Virgil’s voice whispered to her that it was okay, even beautiful, for her to let go, and she slid off the giant Primum Mobile telescope and slowly fell backwards through space, though there was no bottom, no landing for her, simply the chance of another object eventually passing by that she might reach and cling to for a time.

The vision had caused her to pass out. Later, she would understand that she’d likely succumbed to an epileptic seizure. Sunrise was breaking on the desert, and she felt cold and near death. There was a slight rigid pressure against her forehead, and she opened her eyes to find a scorpion perched there. Beatrice casually brushed the scorpion away. She then stood up and began to walk toward the horizon, toward her star, the sun.

*[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.

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