Roy and Carol

It was the week after Christmas 1967 when I’d gotten the first call from Carol Erskine. Something was the matter with Roy. I hadn’t seen Roy Erskine in over a year and there’d been little contact with him since he’d left Brainchild in the early part of 1965. I saw him every now and then for a drink, or maybe at a party we’d both been invited to. On the phone Carol told me that during the past year Roy had undergone a radical change in his personality and behavior. “He’s withdrawn from Life most of the time,” she said, “and after these long catatonic spells, he’ll suddenly start ranting about how the Communists have stolen our best micrometers and are using them to build superior laser guns that will end up sterilizing us all through the food chain. Absolute crazy talk.”

Carol and Roy no longer did anything together, and their sporadic, infrequent conversation always descended into non-sequitur. They’d not had sex in several months and the last couple times according to Carol had been “weird, perverse.” She confided in me that Roy would go out almost every weeknight, but not because he was seeing someone else. He would go to the library in order to research a secret project. She suspected that he’d somehow ingested LSD, either as an experiment for his ‘project’ or accidentally as the result of someone from work slipping it into his drink. There was a lot of LSD misinformation and paranoia in late ’67 and ’68, but Carol’s theory was plausible. She more rightly feared that Roy’s cataclysmic personality shift was due to schizophrenia, which also ran in his family, and he was at the age of highest risk for males. Carol sounded desperate. I tried to calm her down. The other end of the line was a depressing vacuum.

“Help me, Soren,” she’d pleaded. “I’m really worried. Maybe you can meet him for a drink, or go bowling like you guys used to, or go on a hike somewhere, the old D&R Canal trail maybe. Roy’s been hiking a lot on weekends. He brings back pine cones and tells me they’re a type of ‘transmitter.’ Just talk to him for me, please? I need a second opinion on whether or not he’s truly insane. You and Roy both like science. Maybe you’ll be able to make sense of some of the crazy things he’s been saying.”

So I called Roy after the New Year. We agreed to meet at The Starlight Tavern where I’d first been introduced to Gladys. At the time I had taken the name Starlight as a good omen for my blind date. The tavern had for its sign post a wrought iron chain with a stable lantern and the sign itself was a waxing half-moon with a smattering of stars crudely painted on a black or dark blue or purple wood background. I thought of my wedding reception with Gladys and I thought of our first date with Carol and Roy. Tonight it would just be Roy and me without the wives.

Since leaving Brainchild, Roy had been employed at an aeronautics manufacturing plant with lucrative defense contracts, and he had gotten his electrical engineering degree. I knew that much from having seen him every now and then. But he was no longer the clean-cut, easy-going, joking extravert; he’d become unshaven, his hair longer and unkempt and ragged, not unlike his clothes— the jacket, shirt and pants deceptively looking of one piece, a deflated bag of cotton that swaddled him to his chair, a collapsed tent. His entire demeanor had transformed from an intelligent and gregarious confidence to one of withdrawn, paranoid and angry confusion, a metaphorical dwarf in a trench coat peering backwards over his shoulder with each troubled step he took. Carol was right. Roy had clearly undergone a mental crash, a splintering of the soul. He was far away from me. He drank club soda—he wasn’t drinking alcohol anymore—and he spoke rationally for the first few minutes of our conversation, but soon the symptoms Carol had described and feared clearly manifested themselves in Roy’s words.

A covert military operation named ‘Osiris’ had inserted a transceiver into his rectum under the guise of a security clearance physical examination. Since the insertion of the transceiver, military intelligence had been sending codes through his bloodstream. He’d been working with lasers recently at the aeronautics plant as part of a new defense contract, and he believed heightened exposure to laser beams had left him sterilized.

“Carol hasn’t been able to get pregnant,” he told me as if the connection were obvious.

“Carol hasn’t been able to get pregnant because you stopped having sex with her. It has nothing to do with laser beams.”

“I’m sorry, but I think it does.”

Roy would talk calmly and reasonably for a few minutes at a time depending on the subject, but then his speech would abruptly accelerate, and he’d yammer in a monotone voice, faster than a priest intoning the mass in Latin, or pilgrims at Mecca, a sibilant drone: Soviet experiments in mind control (they didn’t give a damn about the moon, they were onto much bigger things); LSD and BZ; a Second Coming of Jesus Christ masquerading as an alien invasion; the Apollo Space Program as a planned diversion for an impending fascist military coup d’etat of our government . . . and us.

The military had selected Roy for a top secret mission, beginning with the rectal transceiver, and he was going to be stowed on board the next Apollo flight, because the tragic fire on Apollo One, killing three astronauts, had been the work of soviet agents. Roy spent most of his evenings at the local library, researching and preparing for his mission, poring over microfiche of intricate schematics. But the Russian commies had been watching him, and he was worried that he would soon be captured and tortured. Roy had devised an ingenious method to evade the Russians (and he now leaned over and whispered his method to me). He’d achieved the knowledge and ability to change himself into a human negative at will, or create the “illusion” of appearing as a negative in order to hide from his enemies. And he could also see his enemies as negatives.

“You won’t be able to see me soon.”

“This is Negative Roy I’m talking to?”

“Listen . . . it’s not just that I can ‘reverse’ when I need to avoid capture; I can see the spies as negatives.”

“But then if you’re a negative, your enemies should have the advantage of seeing you too, if they’re negatives.”

Roy shook his head, mildly impatient with my weak understanding.

“It doesn’t work that way. Two equal negatives don’t make a positive.”

“I see . . . Does anyone in this room happen to be a negative?”

Roy nodded in the direction of a ruddy-cheeked middle-aged man in a gray business suit standing near the end of the bar.

“Him? You think he’s a spy?”

“Don’t think. I know he’s a spy. The drug experiment has given me the power to see the negatives as well as reverse into one.”

There followed a long and uncomfortable silence. I would have to speak honestly.

“I think you need help.”

Roy looked slightly hurt and suspicious.

“What kind of help?”

“A doctor. A psychiatrist . . .”

“But I feel fine,” he said.

“I know you do,” I told him. “And I’m not surprised.”

The second call came less than a month later on a Sunday morning. Carol was distressed, panicked. Roy was breaking and smashing things, shrieking in an ear-splitting babble that negatives were moving in on him, surrounding him, that they needed to destroy all their belongings and flee the country before it was too late, because the transceiver had dissolved and been passed in his urine and he’d lost his power to conceal himself as a negative. He was in a rage and tearing the house apart. Carol had tried to stop him, but was threatened with a waffle iron, so she’d locked herself in the bedroom and called emergency transport and the psychiatric hospital. She was having Roy committed to Greystone.

“Please come right away, Soren.”

I heard Roy’s screams as I drove down the street to his house. The ambulance was already pulled alongside the curb, its doors open to reveal a nest of chrome and latex apparatus. Fighting was coming from inside the house, and Carol’s shouts lost in the fray and din, but a moment later it became eerily quiet. I reached the steps as the front door was flung open and two attendants appeared, bearing a gurney with Roy lashed to it inside a strait jacket, flattened to an almost two-dimensional figure. The attendants set the gurney on the front lawn for a moment while one of them lit a cigarette. Restrained, sedated, Roy had little sense of what was being done to him. He wore the expression of a boy who’d lost his mother in a department store. What was wrong with the world in which a prince like Roy could be locked away in a nut house? Was it because he saw too much? Or saw through the evil powers in government and business?

Sobbing in spasms, her blond hair tangled, Carol now stepped onto the front lawn but would not watch as the attendants lifted Roy, like some head of state borne on a funeral litter, into the ambulance. Roy’s head was the only visible part of him, as if he were a butterfly or moth having just broken through its pupa, though there would be no way of breaking those restraints.

“Do you see any negatives, Roy?” I asked him. “These men who are taking you away for instance?”

Curiously he shook his head but then nodded in the direction of Carol—his ultimate spy and betrayer—before going unconscious. I felt a nauseous chill pass through me. The attendants shut the ambulance doors and sped off with the siren whining. I walked over to Carol and put my arms around her.

I knew what might be coming in the days after Roy had been committed to the mental hospital. At first I justified my motive for visiting Carol in the belief that I was being a good friend to both Carol and Roy. I talked to her nearly every day on the phone and stopped by the house a couple times a week on my way home from work. Carol needed help and support, and she only knew a few people that she felt could spend the time with her. On my visits we would drink wine and I’d mostly listen to her talk, and we discovered that we hadn’t known one another very well, because we’d been half of a foursome, fifty percent of two couples, and had behaved accordingly.

“How’s Gladys?” she’d asked me.

“Who?”

Carol laughed. “You work too hard. You don’t see her much, do you?”

“I work pretty hard, but that’s not why I don’t spend time with her.”

So I told Carol about the problems with my marriage, how Gladys had become a nag, a bitter agoraphobic harridan, and how she’d endlessly criticized and savaged my astronomy hobby once we’d gotten married, leaving me alone and isolated in pursuit of the one thing I loved most. Carol was sympathetic. She was interested in astronomy too, and as I talked to her of nova and nebula she would smile at me and ask stimulating speculative questions about the distance between galaxies and whether there was actually an end to the universe. Her long blond hair would effulge as she lit a candle and we sat in the kitchen drinking red wine and smoking a cigarette or two, and I’d believed those times were helping her to forget Roy.

Carol was far more intelligent than I’d remembered her being. I learned a little about her past. Her father had been a Methodist minister and he secretly drank and had concealed his alcoholism from the family for years. Neither of her parents were still living, which also made the situation with Roy harder for her, and she’d severed ties with her older sister long ago, because they’d had a falling out and had nothing in common to begin with. I learned about some early boyfriends, before Roy, and also one who’d joined the Navy like Roy and me and belatedly proposed to her not long after she and Roy had gotten engaged. Carol told me she wouldn’t have married that boyfriend anyway (she’d hoped his enlistment would have ended the courtship), but nonetheless she punished herself over her decision to have married Roy. She’d not seen certain signs early on, like his behavioral quirks, his compulsive disorder and sexual hang-ups. By the second week my visits were lasting an hour or more.

One night I found her in a very bad way, a mess of nerves and despair, smoking too much, already on her third glass of wine.

“Roy’s undergone electro-shock,” she said. “They have him on a heavy dose of Thorazine. The doctor’s told me that their treatment isn’t working for him. Today he tried to kill himself.”

“My God! How?”

“By banging his head repeatedly against a cement wall.”

“Maybe he shouldn’t have been committed,” I said, realizing some vague underlying guilt that I’d played a part in having Roy put away. “People often come out of those places worse than when they entered,” I added.

Carol cried and wiped her mascara streaked eyes, her face raw and pained.

“You saw him. I had no choice,” she said, and then she broke down and screamed “Oh Jesus! Jesus-fucking-Christ! Why is this happening? Why! Why!”

I wanted to get home, home to my 21–inch Cassegrain Reflector and a potential rumored viewing of a fireball in Aurigids meteor shower (which would provide the challenge of my fixing the Aurigids radiant), but I knew that with Carol’s condition it might not be possible to leave for a while. I tried to console her, mumbled, “I’m sorry,” but something in my body language must have given my intention away.

“You’re not going,” she said, half drunk, teetering, slurring. “Not tonight . . . I need you to come here and hold me . . . Can you do that, Soren? Hold me? Don’t leave me alone.”

I visited Carol a dozen more times over the next five to six weeks. On each visit we would drink wine or maybe a cocktail and then make love, and afterwards I would either stay and talk with her or leave, depending on the time. Our conversation artfully danced around any mention of Roy, but Roy was still a presence. I imagined Roy’s negative, or Negative Roy, concealed somewhere in the bedroom, perhaps crouched and staring from the partially open closet, his pupils two pin pricks of light, or maybe he was trapped beneath the bed springs while his wife and good friend banged away above him, a rhythm to the melody of moans. I imagined Roy’s negative theory applied to all forms of betrayal: industrial espionage; government machinations and control; global corporations exploiting and murdering in third-world countries; adultery
. . . Roy’s insanity may have allowed him to see right through his wife and friend and gaze dispassionately into our false hearts. But Carol and I had begun to feel the distance ourselves, as if in the upheaval of losing his mind Roy had ceased to exist for us in body too, or that he’d suffered a severe accident and been left on life support, a vegetable. Carol would sometimes cry after we made love.

I didn’t have any guilt about Gladys, but Roy was different. Roy had simply lost his mind and didn’t deserve what Carol and I were doing to him. Try as we might to ignore it, our guilt over Roy was palpable, tenacious and lingering.

“Are you afraid he’ll be cured? That one day he’ll leave Greystone and eventually find out about us?”

We were lying in bed. I was half turned into her, embraced, her mouth close to my chest, my arm encircling her shoulder and upper back, my right thigh solidly wedged and welcome between hers.

“I don’t think Roy will ever be getting out of the hospital. He may be institutionalized for the rest of his life. Or he may wind up in one of those halfway houses they’ve been trying out. I have to face the fact that Roy is probably never coming back . . . and what if he does? What kind of person will he be? He’ll never be the same.”

“So how do you go about filing for divorce?” I asked her. “That could be legally complicated if the other party has no understanding of what’s being done to them.”

Carol pulled away from me and lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. The late winter days had started to lengthen and there was still a trace of daylight in her bedroom, gradually shrinking to shadow, like a dying star.

“I have no idea,” she said. “But what about you? What are you going to do? About Gladys?”

“I have no idea either,” I said.

My visits started to slow down, and they lacked the intensity and libidinal investment of the earlier visits when Carol and I were first discovering one another and the effortlessness of initiating an affair. She was beautiful and a good lover and we’d both needed sexual intimacy. She was too intelligent to read what we were doing as anything other than a brief affair. She knew we wouldn’t be a good match and therefore didn’t play any games, which I appreciated and thanked her for, though I’d miss her and miss the sex. And there was the much weightier issue of what Carol would be doing with her life now that Roy had been put away. My daily routine would not change . . . Carol and Gladys had never been close friends, and a few times she told me she was sorry for having introduced us, knowing how things turned out. I reminded her that Gladys was not the same as the Gladys I’d been introduced to and that Carol had meant well, and now that we’d been lovers she confided that she hoped I would leave Gladys and find happiness with someone else . . . but it would take another 11 years before I would have the chance . . . .

“Is something the matter with you? You’re acting weird lately, or more weird than usual.”

That was Gladys making the only non-habitual comment I’d heard from her during the time of my affair with Carol.

“No, nothing is the matter,” I tell her.

In the days, weeks, maybe first few months after the affair with Carol had ended, I threw myself into my telescopes and celestial observation with greater zeal, with a strange, unprecedented abandon. My immersion thoroughly surprised me at first, but I gradually came to understand the change in me. On the most simple and superficial level I was trying to recover lost time, but paradoxically I had needed lost time, time away from my hobby, had needed the time with Carol to get me to this place of deeper communion with the stars. I started to catalog the Cepheid Variables. I spent a full hour each night observing the Orion Nebula. I detailed the trajectories of stars with apparent retrograde motion, and returned to a closer examination of the double star system Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Majoris. I devoted a greater amount of time than I had previously to a survey of the lunar seas and mountain ranges, and from everything I’d been reading it looked certain that we would see a man walk on the moon before the end of the decade—comfortably ahead of the Russians.

That was over ten years ago . . . and we’ve stopped going to the moon. . . .

I often brew a pot of coffee or tea to help keep me awake later into the night, but even with the aid of caffeine I sometimes catch myself dozing off in the early hours of the morning. My thoughts blur and weave in strange patterns while marking a red dwarf’s right ascension and declension coordinates, and I experience a flood of revelation beyond the fringe of reason, discoveries of lasting significance for astronomy and physics, but intuited, mystical, a flash of divine wisdom that makes no empirical sense whatsoever and might take a mathematical genius to prove with a three-blackboard equation. But these sparks, however illogical, feel real to me, and sometimes while staring into the maw of darkness after midnight I can see Roy’s face as he was strapped down on the gurney, the sleeping drugs quickly coming on. I’ve been haunted by that face for years. I had no idea what finally happened to him, but I suspect it wasn’t good, and I’d let go of wanting to find out. I knew that Roy was still in Greystone by the time Carol had moved to California in ’70 . . . and lately, as I peer into the so-called void of space, and ponder black holes and all the dark matter that we cannot see but know is there, I’ll think of Roy’s delusion of turning himself into a negative. Maybe his delusion wasn’t so crazy after all— that the idea of us being both positive and negative, on and off, visible and invisible, light and dark, yin-yang-yin, does indeed mirror our universe, matter seen and unseen. We are always half hidden.

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Gladys

I first met Gladys, my wife of 15 years, through Roy Erskine, a co-worker at Brainchild Scientific. I had only been working at Brainchild about a month when Roy asked me if I’d consider going on a blind date with a friend of his wife’s. I liked Roy. We were both Navy vets and had a few things in common. Roy was an electronics genius, and he was taking night classes at college to get a degree in electrical engineering. As it turned out, his beautiful wife Carol had this friend and she asked me if I would like to meet her and the friend (and Roy of course) at The Starlight Tavern, a local tavern we frequented where they made exceptionally good prime rib, and also pizza.

We wound up having fun that evening, although Gladys had not been what I’d expected. She was small, almost mousy, and slightly ethnic-looking, but she was cute and not unattractive. She didn’t say much, but she seemed to be good-hearted and interested in different subjects, including astronomy. The four of us carried on at the Starlight, and made a lot of noise, a lot of joking and laughter, mostly because Roy got louder the more he drank and began doing impressions of people, some of whom were sitting not too far away from us. After dinner we repaired to the bar for more beers and whiskey and cocktails until the owners kicked us out around 10:00 because the bar was closing. Roy smoozed with other patrons in the bar. He struck up imaginary business deals or bragged about the Yankees, about Maris and Mantle. He told everyone about Brainchild Scientific, about what a great company and retailer we were. Carol excused her husband’s boisterous, inebriated behavior. “Oh, that’s Roy . . . can’t take him anywhere.” I talked to Gladys to keep the conversation moving. I found out that Gladys was living with her mother and working as a secretary at an architectural firm. She had attended college for a year. We decided to see a movie that Saturday night and enjoyed each other’s company. We continued dating, and experienced a curious absence of rough spots which I misconstrued as the two of us getting along pretty well. We were married in less than a year in a small civil ceremony. Roy and Carol were our witnesses, and after the wedding the four of us, along with a dozen other friends and Brainchild employees and Bob Crane, all celebrated at The Starlight Tavern where Gladys and I had been introduced approximately ten months earlier. As we partied that day, getting drunk on Schaffer’s and cheap champagne, it felt that Gladys and I had come full circle, and that the tavern had marked the beginning and the end of something. I knew I was missing an important piece of the puzzle, or that I still didn’t have all the information, or all the right information. Gladys had been pushing for us to get married, mostly so she could be free of her overbearing neurotic mother, and I’d agreed with her, feeling that I might be ready for marriage too. I was settling into my job at Brainchild Scientific and my astronomy, settling into what looked like a stable life, and I wanted to be married. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

But within the first few months of our marriage I’d begun to notice that Gladys was a much different person. The Gladys I had known during our courtship turned out to be a stand-in double, a representative of marriage potential, a rough, a mock-up or prototype before all the negative components had been added in. The most painful of the newly emerged negatives was Gladys’s constant carping on my astronomy hobby. Gladys didn’t like my astronomy hobby. She said that buying and building telescopes was a waste of money. “You don’t spend enough time with me at night,” she’d groused, when in fact I’d done nothing else but spend nights watching television with Gladys since we’d been married. The Saturday night Jackie Gleason show with the June Taylor Dancers was a mainstay of our entertainment, and I can still recall those aerial shots of the dancers creating ever-shifting mandala patterns. Later I would realize that Gladys didn’t seem to be at all in step with the 60’s, or at least its political and cultural symbolism, and while I wasn’t demonstrating on college campuses (hell, I hadn’t even gone to college), I at least recognized the zeitgeist taking place across much of the country. Gladys felt threatened by it all. She feared and did not understand the Reverend Martin Luther King, and Malcolm-X plain scared her. She didn’t like Bob Dylan’s songs because “he can’t sing,” and in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, as we were watching round-the-clock news coverage, Gladys had confessed to me that, “I never liked Kennedy. I didn’t vote for him. I wanted Nixon to win. Kennedy nearly got us all killed because of Cuba.” She had at least possessed enough sensitivity and compassion to acknowledge that the assassination of our president was a national tragedy, but she was also pro-Vietnam, or the US war to defeat a Communist takeover in Vietnam. As a veteran I’d agreed with her at first, however by 1968, following the Tet Offensive, I began to question US involvement in Vietnam and opposed any further escalation of troops.

After a year-and-a-half of marriage Gladys quit her job without telling me. Her reason was that, once we’d tried to conceive a child, she’d prematurely decided to be a stay-at-home mom, kind of as a way of forcing the baby issue. Predictably, Gladys’s unilateral and impulsive move—which cut off nearly half of our income with a mortgage to pay—led to a huge fight. But she got her way in the end, and stayed home, and for whatever reason, she was never able to get pregnant. We tried for about a year, and then more or less gave up trying for other reasons too. We had begun to drift apart sexually, or maybe just drift apart altogether, with lack of sexual activity being the obvious manifestation of the drift. In spite of our disaffection for one another, we still managed to have sex two or three times a month, but the sex was no longer planned around Gladys ovulating, and I’d begun to suspect that Gladys was now monitoring her cycle so that she wouldn’t have sex with me while ovulating—just in case. And that was fine with me frankly. I had realized that there was an unspoken palpable feeling that maybe our procreating was not meant to be, that we should not deceive ourselves by thinking that a child would somehow make a bad marriage better, or that we’d grow more in love. What a child would certainly do at this stage was deepen the trap and likely kill the marriage for good. And at first I’d foolishly thought that maybe it was just the wrong time for a child, but I soon reached the conclusion that with Gladys there would never be a right time, and maybe out of spite, or jealousy of me, or a sense of our failure, she’d decided to stay home permanently and watch daytime TV and grow put on weight. I eventually got her a dog, a black-haired mutt she named Benji. The dog wasn’t house broken, and Gladys didn’t bother to walk him or let him run in the yard, and every evening as I happily entered my observatory I would find a crude pyramid of dog shit waiting to be picked up.

By the late 60’s I was certain that my marriage to Gladys was in free fall. We had begun avoiding one another. I either worked long 12-hour days at Brainchild, or spent evenings with my telescopes. During this time, “The Age of Aquarius” as it was being labeled in the media and popular culture, we were doing a huge business in black lights, strobe lights and do-it-yourself light shows for psychedelic bands and be-ins across the region. I had helped maybe a dozen hippies and counter-cultural longhairs, electronics wizards, who’d come to the store to buy equipment they needed for putting on shows, or happenings, in Philadelphia, and North Jersey, and even New York City, mostly in Greenwich Village.

And that was how I’d met and befriended Cosmic Cosmo.

I had begun to feel an affinity for these light show wizards and was interested in what they were about. And reciprocally they were interested in all things celestial or cosmic, space travel, and science fiction. Astronomy tied into their drug experiences. We had all seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” at least a couple of times, and we talked about that space vision with a reverent and vaguely philosophical alacrity . . . I was older than the hippies. I was 28, almost 29, but somehow age wasn’t the difference, or at least numerical age. Some of the light show wizards were close to my age, but I felt cut off, not a part of the collective counter-culture, the love-ins, the demonstrations, the drugs and sexual promiscuity that seemed to be taking place everywhere in major cities, near urban centers or in college towns.

Gladys had an aversion to the growing counter-culture, which I believed made it more attractive to me. She called the hippies “weirdos” and “dirty, drug-crazed radicals,” and stated no interest in attending any of the shows or concerts that I had been supplying strobe lights for, even when I was given free tickets. I was hurt and confused by her “straight” way of thinking. Gladys already looked and behaved like a 40-year-old woman and she was only 27. Clearly, we were no longer at the same place in our lives, and I wondered if we had ever been.

One of the light show buyers who frequented the store was nicknamed Cosmic Cosmo. His real name was Frank Loyola, and because we’d both seen “2001” he’d asked me if I would help him with one of his shows because he was looking for a similar effect to the final space trip sequence and he believed I could advise him on the authenticity of certain astronomical phenomena. Cosmo was a physics major from Rutgers who bore a likeness to Jerry Garcia or a character from Zap Comics. We became unlikely friends, and to pay me back for helping him with his special effects, he invited me to a concert at the Filmore East —Quick Silver Messenger Service and Ultimate Spinach—and of course Joshua Light Show, “the most far out, fantastic, trippy light show you will ever see in your lifetime,” Cosmo told me. I’d begun to smoke pot and grow my hair longer. I started a fu-Manchu moustache. Gladys said I looked stupid. A few months later, in the early days of the crazy summer of ’69, I threatened to drive up to the Woodstock Festival but lost my nerve at the last minute, and that was in spite of or because of the experience I’d had several weeks earlier, at the beginning of the summer.

It was the end of June or early July, only a few weeks before the Apollo Moon Landing and Moonwalk, and I had stopped by Cosmo’s one evening to find a small party in full swing. There were about a dozen people and a few were tripping on LSD and psilocybin, and the rest were stoned on hashish. Cosmo had one of his light shows projected onto a large wall, and strange prismatic lights were bleeding and scattering and morphing with myriad amoeba like primal images accompanied to the music of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, and others. I joined in with the company. I smoked hashish and drank Mateusz wine, and wound up in someone’s bedroom with a 21-year-old Rutgers co-ed who’d been crashing on Cosmo’s couch for the summer . . . A few weeks later, as I sat watching the astronauts bobbing like helmeted lice on the surface of the moon, all I could think of was the night I’d spent making love to that young but experienced girl, my senses buzzing to the pure light of flesh and intoxication. I had waited nearly a decade for the crowning moment of the moon landing, and it had been pre-empted in my mind by the memory of being fellated by a pretty young college girl.

The Rutgers co-ed was actually the second time I had cheated on Gladys. I’m still not sure why we’d stayed together through that strange, tumultuous but wonderful period of the late 60s and early 70s when it would have been much easier and smarter for us to divorce. We had no children, you see. We still have no children, and now we mostly go through the motions of being married, and sex with Gladys is once a month (if that) and more unsatisfying than ever. I guess we’ve never quite recovered from that enormous rift back in the Cosmic Cosmo days, and have drifted even further apart, and I’ve been mostly living in a dead marriage and denying myself happiness for nearly the past decade. My salvation has been to lose myself deeper in astronomy and telescopes, deeper into the outer reaches and wonders of our known universe as a means of escape . . . it’s the only way I’m able to cope.

Brainchild Scientific

My love of astronomy had begun in 1960 when I was a seaman aboard the USS Shostakovich in the South Atlantic, several miles off the coast of Brazil — 22 57’ South, 42 12’ West. I had grown up in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, where the night skies were packed with stars, but I had never paid as close attention to them, was never so enthralled by them, as when I was on the Shostakovich at three in the morning. There were more stars out there at 22 57’ South, 42 12’ West than I’d seen in my entire life (and strange new ones too) strung along the horizon like strands of pearls and then thickening in brilliance and number toward the black vault of the heavens. And there was silence, too, unlike anything you’d ever experience on land, except maybe in the desert, and the silence was ideal for observing the stars, for communicating, almost in a state of prayer, with worlds outside your own. It was an important, life-changing experience for me, buoyed on this huge, gently floating ship in the warm dark night surrounded by thousands of stars. I was hooked. I started using binoculars and learned some of the new constellations at this latitude: Fornax, Sculptor and Crux, among others, and stars such as Proxima Centauri. Regardless of whether or not I had watch, I spent an hour or two every night on deck with clusters and novae, binaries, galaxies, meteors, the planets and their moons, and Earth’s moon. I logged my observations, sometimes accompanied by small, carefully rendered drawings, in a thick notebook. I soon moved up to a spotting scope.

I got along pretty well with most of my shipmates, but they started to rib me once they noticed I was spending a lot of time star gazing. They’d had ways of ribbing me almost from the beginning—mild stuff, like when I would enter a room the swabs would say, “In”Hale, and when I left the room it was, naturally, “Ex”Hale but after I began studying astronomy and gazing at the night sky, I was frequently and predictably called “Galileo” and “Copernicus.” It was during these early days of my new hobby that a swab approached me one day during mess.

“Hey, Copernicus, you ought to check out this ensign named Lester Benson. He can probably help you with your star gazing hobby.”

So I found Ensign Lester Benson. He was a quiet and withdrawn individual, but he explained a great deal of astronomical phenomena to me that I’d previously had little knowledge of—things like meteor showers, or red giants and white dwarfs, or the aurora borealis which we weren’t going to be seeing in this latitude of 22-deg. South. And Benson had a fairly large reflector telescope and a few books on astronomy. Eventually Ensign Benson and I formed an amateur astronomy club on board the Shostakovich, with the addition of Nick, the radioman, and a couple other sailors. We would meet one or two nights each week, and although our short-lived club had turned out to be a worthwhile activity and helped to alleviate some of the boredom of being weeks-on-end at sea, I mostly enjoyed doing astronomy on my own. There was something about searching the night skies into the wee hours that welcomed introverts and lone wolves. As the night grew more silent and still, I realized I was more at peace, more at home. I had always thought I was fairly social and outgoing, or at least moderately so. I had never thought of myself as an introvert, but in those days on board the Shostakovich with a new telescope, as I was turning 20, I discovered a side of me that I hadn’t known existed before.

I remember one weekend I traded shore leave so I could stay aboard the ship and follow a partial lunar eclipse, a celestial event that was new and compelling for me. My shipmates, including Benson, thought I was crazy to pass up a couple nights of what everyone agreed would be “the best time you’ll ever have in your life.” And as I watched the sepia penumbra swarm the yellow disc of the moon, I imagined my shipmates in Rio dancing with whores, staggering through the streets of the Copacabana or Praca Maua neighborhoods with whores. I knew they would be having fun, or their version of fun. I had already done the debauch, the amnesiac bender in Rio, even during Carnevale, and I wasn’t interested this time. I had lost my virginity in the Navy and had gotten my first and only dose of clap in the Navy. I was still interested in women, and often horny, but Life for me was becoming about something other than just getting drunk and laid on shore leave.

Following my discharge from the US Navy in the early part of ‘62, I applied for a job at Brainchild Scientific. I had noted their address from the catalog and from ordering lens kits, and I made this great discovery that the factory-warehouse store was in Clinton, about a 25-minute drive from where I’d grown up. Bob Crane, the founder of Brainchild, was an amateur photographer and lens expert of some renown. He shared my enthusiasm for optics but not for astronomy. During the interview I told him everything I knew about single element lenses, though they weren’t my favorite. I also mentioned some history about the World War II Japanese U-boat periscope Bob had acquired for the store and that seemed to impress him. I would later discover that Bob Crane was a Unitarian and believed that Science and faith in God were not mutually exclusive and could even coexist. He wore a crew cut and black-framed eyeglasses, and a short-sleeved shirt and large wrist watch, and he looked just like dozens of NASA engineers at that time. It was the Camelot Era when there seemed to be no limit to what smart young white men could achieve. We lived in this fantasy palace of possibility, a realm of Science, and Jazz records, and foreign films, and mysterious young women with silver lipstick.

After a few minutes of discussing the responsibilities of the position, Bob Crane pushed aside my application and stared curiously at me. He had a face that wasn’t unpleasant, which made his staring a bit more tolerable; though I thought the silence hanging between us was a little too intense for an ordinary job interview.

“So, Soren,” he finally asked me, “What do you think of John Glenn orbiting the Earth three times?”

“I think it’s the greatest thing our nation has done since winning the Second World War,” I told him. “I am one-hundred percent behind the space program and NASA. I believe that our destiny is in space exploration. We can’t ignore it.”

Bob smiled. He seemed pleased with my answer.

“And what about the Space Race against the Russians? D’you think we can put a man on the moon by the end of the decade? As President Kennedy has challenged us to do?”

“Yes, sir, I believe we can put a man on the moon by the end of this decade, and I will do whatever I can to be a part of that challenge.”

I was hired on the spot.

I had a rough time at first. There was so much in the way of inventory to learn. But I was only 21, and Bob Crane, who was seven years older, adopted a paternalistic role with me, deciding that I possessed enough smarts and desire and work ethic for him to train and mentor me in the arcane business of scientific catalogs and optical lenses. And Bob sought out my opinion as an amateur astronomer on how I rated certain lens types and manufacturers. He found my ratings “invaluable” and considered them when planning new products against those of our competitors. I became assistant store manager within six months and was promoted to store manager before the end of my second year following the store manager’s resignation over a dispute as to whether the lens kit business should cede some ground to new lines of merchandise. As it turned out, the store manager’s vision would come to pass anyway.

The business grew rapidly through the 1960s and I began seeing less of Bob. By then I had become general store manager, and entrusted with all business operations. Bob Crane had become rich. He’d acquired a country club membership, a 46-foot sloop, and a new young girlfriend after his divorce. Once a year in July he threw a party on his yacht (christened “My Little Brainchild”) for all store employees (about 30 of us or more by the latter part of the decade), and in late fall he usually sailed down to the Bahamas and stayed for most of the winter. He attended to company business in the spring and summer, but more as an advisor, or a senior partner, who had no other partners oddly enough.

Gladys began nagging me to leave Brainchild Scientific. She complained often that I received little compensation for all my hard work which had contributed significantly to the success of the business, and if Bob wasn’t willing to make me a partner or part owner, then I should leave him high-and-dry and work for a better company at better pay and with more benefits. Gladys hated Bob Crane.

“He’s a playboy. He’s using you.”

“No, he’s not. We wouldn’t be doing this well if it hadn’t been for Bob.”

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say. And it’s precisely what these small business owners brainwash you loyal quiet types into believing. Your problem is you have no ambition. You don’t want to get anywhere and make our lives better.”

“My life is fine the way it is,” I tell her.

“That’s nice, but mine isn’t. You have no drive, Soren. All you care about is your astronomy hobby. You’re too complacent . . . you’re too passive.”

The Brainchild catalog is a treasure trove of merchandise and gizmos for science hobbyists, as well as its line of optics. A sort of Last Whole Earth Catalog in its own right (Stewart Brand had acknowledged us for listing nearly all the items that he included in the Last Whole Earth Catalog). Within the Brainchild pages one can find beakers and chemistry sets, Mendelian hybridization kits, optic wheels, astrolabes and rock tumblers, prisms and barometers, plastic models of human skeletons overlaid with all the colored organs, veins and arteries, Fresnl magnifiers and Barlow lenses, geodes, Galileo Thermometers, constellation and wheels, Moon clocks, model solar systems done to near scale, magnetic pendulums and sextants, kits to make your own lightning, kits of all kinds, and of course a wide range of telescopes and microscopes.

I own nine telescopes and have built four of them myself, including the EtherScan-1200. I mostly study binary systems, and with the higher-powered lenses I’ve acquired with Brainchild’s employee discount, I can now observe binaries that previously weren’t visible with my other telescopes. When I’m not following binaries, and there when there isn’t any other significant celestial event—like the Leonids or an approach of Mars—vying for my attention in the night sky, then I normally work on my back-burner project of identifying and logging every mapped sea and crater of the lunar landscape. I still mostly use a National Geographic map from 1969 and the NASA photos as reference. The Seas: The Mare Cogitum, the Mare Vaporum the Mare Nubium, Mare Humorum. Craters: Rina Amadeus, Zollner, Gylden, and the ones named after philosophers, such as Kant or Descartes, or famous Romans like Tacitus and Agrippa. . . .

Nearly every night I am lost for at least two hours but usually more in a circle of black at the terminus of a long metal tube where the myriad stars grow in number the longer you focus, the longer you stare. Tonight I am locked somewhere near the Crab Nebula, that great supernova first sighted in China in the year 1054. Some nebula look like pussy willows, slightly blurred ellipsoids, but The Crab always appears to be escaping from itself, its crimped and jagged tentacles of gas perpetually fanning out, arcing, groping . . . The Horse Head Nebula in Orion is another favorite, rising out of interstellar matter like a knight on a chessboard, or a huge cosmic nose.

I think HG Wells said it best for me:
“. . . and I spend many of the clear nights in the study of astronomy. There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”

And I would like Kepler’s epitaph to be my own:

I measured the skies,
Now the shadows I measure
Skybound was the mind,
Earthbound the body rests.

You see, Gladys may be right. My attraction and constant need for this chilled realm has turned me into a recluse of sorts, or maybe a “cold and distant” person, whatever that means. I have recoiled at the touch of others, and I often find it a challenge to maintain a sense of what’s happening day to day on this planet, and often I am mute and incapable of making small talk with strangers. Beatrice would understand this need of mine. Beatrice might have a touch of coldness herself, but she would love astronomy too. Like me, she’d become drawn into the serene quiet and solitude of celestial observation and experience the joy of finding release from the daily commerce and interaction with the world. I was able to see that in her eyes—in the brown and the blue—as they’d probed with such questioning and wondrous clarity. I was able to see that in a moment with lovely Beatrice.

Sometimes in the depths of the night I may be momentarily jolted out of my observation with the thought that I will never be a father, never have a child. I will pause and look around the glass room with its darkened luster, and I will see my eight-year-old son or daughter materialize in the shadow or beam of light beside me, peering through a scaled-down telescope of their own that I’ve built for him, or her. They are half asleep, eyes drooping, yawning, but staring as long as their attention will hold, which is normally a few minutes, and asking me fascinating questions about Sirius, or the Rings of Saturn, the Moons of Jupiter, the Dark Side of the Moon . . . I don’t think about it often, but I do have this periodic aching feeling of going the rest of my life without children. Gladys has opposed any idea of adopting a child, which had been the most reasonable alternative I thought when faced with our inability to conceive, and afterwards when we’d stopped trying altogether from sheer lack of interest.

I enter the main part of the house around 1:00 AM. The kitchen always looks strangely alien, a muted spectral fluorescent light above the sink, and there is a slight hum of the refrigerator, and a faint ticking of the wall clock. Through the kitchen window a lamp at the far end of the street casts a white pool of light, almost like a stage spotlight. No one can honestly convey the feeling of a sleeping house in the small hours of the morning. All your senses are pricked up a notch and that primal state cannot adequately be translated in a visual medium like TV or movies, which mostly use the empty-house-in-the-middle-of-the-night setting to prepare you for violence. That’s not what the mood is about at all. Perhaps if you are over stimulated and worried about something, and you are more prone to a little fear and paranoia, you may hear things or see things. But that time of night is really about peace and silence, a tranquility that is somehow heightened in the senses by a few previous hours spent dwelling in the stars. There is no question of cheap thrills and sensationalism when one is in that state of mind. There is no light and jarring appliance noise or television or radio chatter (at least not tonight), few if any cars, and the one or two you might notice, whose lights sweep along the wall, are interesting. No lawnmowers or chainsaws. These serene times are what frighten people most. I stand in the kitchen for a minute or two longer, acknowledging the miracle of this world (and others), and then I quietly head upstairs where I find Gladys on the far side of our bed, snoring. Her back looks inflated, slightly unreal in the streetlamp light sifting through the blinds, making bars of shadow across her nightgown. Often Gladys will skip the comfort of our queen size bed and sleep on the sofa bed in the den with the television left on . . . I watch her sleep for half a minute, hoping in a meditative way that a connection of some kind, a brief coupling of souls, will reveal itself at this late hour. But not tonight, and I guess not any night. Gladys and I have been together 16 years, and she’s a stranger. I get in bed and turn my back on her back.

Beatrice

The first time I ever saw Beatrice, that same time I fell in love with her, she was holding up a jar containing a bird skeleton and peering in. It was only days before my discovery of the binary star system xScorpius-427, which I nicknamed “Burns and Allen,” and I would later wonder if Beatrice hadn’t been the inspiration for my discovery, my celestial muse, because the timing of her sighting and the sighting of Burns and Allen seemed more than mere chance or coincidence. It was late September 1978, a rainy Saturday morning. Beatrice held the jar curled in her fingers and studied the sparrow bones: the filigree ribcage like thread gathered on a spool; the frail calcite feet with their splayed and abbreviated digits. She had stared with a childlike curiosity at the skeleton hermetically imprisoned in its glass jar, but also with a sensual rapture, as if she were appraising some rare objet d’art, which, by Nature’s hand, it was. She’d then placed the jar down, and lifted another, smiling at a brittle coil of rattlesnake skin before heading up the aisle towards me. The rain drummed hypnotically on the corrugated roof of Brainchild Scientific as Beatrice strolled up the aisle, studying the microscopes, the optic wheels, and the glass case of butterflies impaled on pins like swatches of fabric. Her long amber hair was dampened with a few beads of water, and she had different colored eyes—one blue and one brown.

But I didn’t speak to Beatrice on that first day. As she drew closer to me, she abruptly veered and approached Kyle, one of my sales reps., with a question about an Archimedes Screw. I couldn’t quite hear the question, but I lingered near the Van de Graff Generator, taking inventory. Kyle was younger and more clean-cut than me, and I thought maybe my appearance had been a little off-putting or intimidating, or that I appeared unapproachable (as I’ve been told) since becoming general manager at Brainchild. Beatrice had a perfect face, and when she nodded and smiled and a slight giggle of “thanks” escaped her lips, I felt this powerful and all-encompassing ray of sunshine descend upon me in which hundreds of small and colorful tropical birds fluttered. The sun burned off the rain and ballooned into a red giant and then exploded in a supernova, and I was hurtling through the heavens near the Omega Centauri Star Cluster, and there were millions of new stars—some dying, some forming—that normally weren’t visible through my EtherScan-1200 series telescope.

I heard the rain drumming on the corrugated metal roof once again, and I realized Kyle was now standing next to me, looking slightly giddy as he touched the silver globe of the Van de Graff and wisps of his hair stood up on end.
“So, what did you think of her?”

“Excuse me?”

“The lovely young lady. You were staring at her so hard she began to feel a little uncomfortable. I covered for you. I said you were supervising me from afar and that I would need to consult with you on some detail about the Archimedes Screw.”

I thanked Kyle for his sensitivity.

“She’s the new Science teacher at Wainwright Middle School. Just graduated from Rutgers last spring . . . I’d say she’s going to make a lot of pubescent boys very happy.”

“And you too?” I joked.

“Cut me a break.”

“Did you happen to get her name?”

Kyle cut his eyes at me. “Why, boss? Do you want to date her? I’ll admit she’s hot, but you’re a dirty old man, Soren. You’re old enough to be that girl’s father. Are you 40 yet?”

“Not quite,” I said in a mildly defensive tone. “38 . . . I could maybe be her teenage father . . .”

Now Kyle, one of my senior store reps, was 24 and of average looks, and he had a girlfriend. He did not yet understand the possibilities with a woman like Beatrice, although he could find her attractive, or “hot” to use his word. He had no idea at his age how legions of women, young and old, would become infinitely desirable in his eyes by the time he reached his early 30’s, no less 38.

My name is Soren Hale and I am the store and warehouse manager at Brainchild Scientific, one of the largest suppliers of lenses, lens equipment, telescopes, microscopes and educational science merchandise in the country. Our customers are mainly public schools and science hobbyists, especially amateur astronomers of which I happen to be one. Our mail-order business continues to grow, but we also maintain our store where anyone can walk in and pick up a microscope, or a miniature droid, or maybe an atoms masher, a sparrow skeleton, or an Archimedes Screw. I have been with Brainchild Scientific for over 15 years. Customers and co-workers respect my knowledge of general science, and my specialized knowledge of astronomy. I’ve built several backyard telescopes—reflectors and refractors—using Brainchild optics. I honestly cannot think of a better job than the one I have working here.

I had other business to attend to in the store that morning, but as the September rain continued to fall—a loud concussive rattle at times—I caught myself unconsciously searching the store for Beatrice. I would glance about while stocking prisms and Bunsen burners for the new school year and there was Beatrice lifting a Petri dish, and then at the back of the store hefting geodes, and later I noticed her peeping through the World War II Japanese periscope. When she laid her fingers on the Van de Graff Generator, a few strands of her hair (strands as fine as a mimosa flower) lifted and twirled in loose plaits above her ears. Without appearing to spy on her, I noted all Beatrice’s expressions and every movement of her body, and the way she walked if I was able to observe her legs based on our relative positions. I tried to listen to the sound of her voice if I noticed she’d stopped to ask one of the other store reps a question. She smiled at Vondell as he switched on the strobe light, and she waved her hand across it to create a rickety kinesis. Vondell laughed, and he then noticed I was watching him, but I’m not a strict boss . . . Sad Laura was taking inventory, but often staring off toward the cinder block walls while listening to the rain. It was the weather today and September that would make Sad Laura sadder. She was sweet and kind and intelligent (she often read 18th and 19th century novels on her lunch break), but she let the world affect her too much—she might notice a headline in the morning paper that would send her into a funk for the rest of the day. She had depression. But when Beatrice approached her, Laura had started to light up and become more outgoing and animated, and the two of them whispered and tittered like school girls.

I was glad that Beatrice wandered the store for close to an hour-and-a-half, but then, as I was standing at the register near the front door, I saw that she was finally leaving. Her left hand clutched a small furled umbrella. She looked directly at me and smiled, and I smiled back at her, and though we hadn’t yet spoken a word to one another, that exchange of smiles was its own conversation.

Me: Come back soon.
She: I certainly will. I love the store.
Me: I will show you amazing things in this store. Hidden treasures. I’m the manager.
She: That’s very nice of you.
Me: You have beautiful eyes. Two different colors. Heterochromia iridium.
She: How perceptive . . . and I can see that you’re wearing a wedding ring.
Me: Is that a problem?
She: Not for me it isn’t. Is it for you?”
Me: Not at all. But I’ll remove it next time.
She: Next time?
Me: Next time I see you of course . . . .
She: Of course . . . .

Not much else happened at work the rest of that day, or little that I can recall. The rain had stopped by early afternoon, and as I drove home between 5:00 and 6:00 that evening the sunlight slanted soft and golden over the woods and farmlands of Amwell, New Jersey. You could already taste autumn, though we were only a couple days past the equinox and the countryside was still summer verdant in the wake of the storm. I drove home with the vision of Beatrice in my head and her enigmatic smile as she’d left the store that morning. Had my life become so sad and desperate that I was really such easy prey? And why would anyone as young and beautiful as Beatrice ever become interested in someone like me? Aside from the stars, I had nothing else to offer. I hoped that she might come back to the store some day, but I thought it more likely that I would never see her again.

For years now I’ve been driving over this state road, past the woods and fields, knowing what I will be seeing in the heavens at nightfall. The storm had pushed away a hot moist low that had moved up from The Gulf, and the air was suddenly clean and void of humidity. By 9:00pm this evening the constellation Taurus would be prominent in the sky, and later on, past midnight, Orion and Canis majoris and other winter constellations would be ascendant, and the sky would be burning with some 1st-magnitude gems: Blue-white Vega, in the constellation Lyra, would be brilliant near the pole stars, and Scorpio, like a sine wave, with its red giant Antares, would be ranging along the southern horizon. Jupiter and Saturn were both visible. During much of the year it’s already dark as I drive home, and the early evening constellations appear along with Venus, the highest magnitude object after the moon, and sometimes you can see Mercury on the horizon, too. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the only other planets visible to the naked eye, may or may not be present in the early evening. I’ve also seen some magnificent moon risings driving home all these years—Harvest Moon, Hunters Moon. Most people believe that the moon appears so enormous on the horizon because of a change in thickness in the atmosphere, or they simply wonder why the size of the moon is so different between the horizon and the zenith. And the reason is visual perception, our eyes playing tricks on us. It happens all the time. The same phenomenon is true for the sun. You can place any object in direct line of sight, and then if you move that object overhead, but maintain the same distance, the object will appear smaller . . . I wish that someday I would be able to tell Beatrice about the reason for the huge rising moon, though I suspect she already knows. Maybe I should wish upon a star.

I live a mile-and-a-half outside of Amwell, in Hunterdon County New Jersey, a dozen miles from the Delaware River. I have about a 25-minute drive to the Brainchild store-warehouse in Clinton. The night skies in this part of the state are far enough removed from urban light pollution, ideal for amateur astronomy. My house is a conventional Cape Cod, but a couple years after moving in, I built a glass room, an atrium, on a concrete patio in back of the house. The new, glass-enclosed space was not only a remarkable source of passive solar heat; it also made a fine greenhouse and observatory. I have left four glass panels open on the roof line, each one square foot, and through this aperture I turn my telescopes toward the night sky. I also love the glass room for its peaceful solitude. Day or night, this glass enclosure has become something of an atrium and meditation room for me as well.

I have a quick bite to eat for dinner and retreat to the glass room. There are several telescopes arrayed along the walls that I use depending on what observation I am working on, but the EtherScan-1200 is the one I use most and my personal favorite. I built it five years ago with brainchild lenses, and I ground the lenses myself. While not superior to a Maskutov or Schmidt-Cassegrain, the scope is comparable and has strong clear aperture, and I’m quite proud of it. The 1200-series maintains superior depth of field, and angular resolution, and has magnification up to 720x though such magnification is seldom necessary and over-hyped. Tonight Beatrice joins me for the first hour I’m in the observatory. She is especially taken with The Pleiades, that well-known star cluster in the constellation Taurus that people who aren’t knowledgeable of constellations often mistake for The Little Dipper. The small dipper shape is actually made up of seven stars; hence The Pleiades are sometimes referred to as “The Seven Sisters.” But as with any star cluster, when you view it through a telescope of even low magnification, or binoculars, you will see a great deal more. It is the element of surprise, the unseen revealed, that Beatrice enjoys most and here is a magnificent star cluster of all sizes, brightness and density. Beatrice eventually takes leave of me and heads back inside, and when I come in a short while later, I find her lost in reverie before a blazing fire, an old hardbound novel tented on her lap, her fingers cradling a glass of Chardonnay, the golden wine trapping a clot of fire light.

“Anything interesting?” she calls to me from her sphere of warm brilliance.

“Antares is at aphelion,” I tell her. “I tracked M-31 for a half an hour or more. It’s always exciting and a pleasure to observe another galaxy. M-31 in Andromeda is our nearest, as you already know, a mere 2 million light years.

The firelight bronzes her hair as Beatrice rises to kiss me. Her blue eye and brown eye are like Rigel and Betelguese.

“What you do is fascinating,” she tells me.

“Not as fascinating as you.”

“Let me get you a cup of tea.”

“Okay. Or I’ll join you in a glass of wine. I have to put my notebook and camera away.”

Beatrice smiles and kisses me again, long and adoringly.

“Hurry back,” she says.

There is no fireplace in my house. . .

Instead I enter from the glass room (which is real) to the kitchen where Gladys sits at the Formica table hunched over a game of solitaire. A cup of instant coffee is near her right hand, obliquely positioned from the Klondike spread, and she has been lacing the instant coffee with Southern Comfort. A stale buttered roll left over from our supper rests on a paper napkin next to the coffee mug. There are brown crescent-shaped wattles of skin beneath Gladys’s remote eyes. She doesn’t look up from her game. Normally I pass her without speaking.

“Been doing more of your star nonsense?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“It’s all bullshit and a waste of time if you ask me.”

“I’m sorry, but I disagree.”

“Of course you do,” Gladys says and flips a card—Ace of Clubs. “You never sit with me at night anymore. Not even on a Saturday night. You’re always out there with your damned telescope for hours, and I wind up spending the night alone. It’s been two years since we’ve spent a Saturday night together.”

“That’s not true,” I remind her. “There was one Saturday night last
month. . .”

“Oh, pardon me, ‘last month’ . . . last month . . . honestly . . .” She pours three fingers of Soco into her tepid, turbid coffee and swishes it around. “Do you even care about me at all?”

I want to get this over with and head upstairs.

“Of course I care about you. You’re my wife. I think you’re just getting drunk and maudlin.”

“Oh, is that my problem? ‘Drunk and maudlin’. I thought my problem was having a cold and distant husband. As distant as those friggin’ stars he spends all his spare time watching.”

I stare at Gladys a moment, and try to think of something to say. But words have taken on an inanity all their own in our dying, or dead, marriage. At moments like these, I find myself asking how I got here, or how we got here; by what series of actions, thoughts and feelings have we managed to reach this low place, this dungeon or crypt? And how can we change it? Is there any hope of turning things around? Or should we finally call it quits? I know that I don’t have to say anything to end our conversation (if that’s what you’d call it); I can simply leave the room, without a word, as I have done many nights, and Gladys would understand because she usually does the same to me. And yet the present moment somehow demands a small courtesy, something polite and possibly tender. Anything but silence.

“I’m going to bed,” I nearly whisper. “You should get some rest too.”

Gladys quickly raises her head from the garish-colored jacks, queens and kings, and glares up at me with loathing, and all those colorfully gaudy two-dimensional faces are glaring at me along with her.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” she extrudes. “Don’t ever tell me what to do.”