The Butterfly Nebula 1 – Beatrice

July 6, 2013


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.”


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