The Butterfly Nebula 4 -Roy and Carol

July 29, 2013

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 “He’s withdrawn from Life most of the time,” she said, “and after these long catatonic spells, he’ll suddenly start ranting about how the Communists have stolen our best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.


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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