Butterfly Nebula – Sketch of the Week

August 11, 2013

A few more weeks passed before I saw Beatrice again, on a clear autumn afternoon in mid-October around four o’ clock. Three of Brainchild’s walls are made of cinder block, but the store front is a large glass window and on this day it was filled with blue sky and honey colored sunlight and indigo shade. The leaves were turning red and orange, and shadows cast an asymmetrical quilt pattern across the neighbors’ silent yards beyond the parking lot. In a small nearby park a group of kids were tossing around a football. One always wanted days like this to last forever.

Funny, the first words out of her mouth had been about the insect. In hindsight I was astonished that she approached me with her question after having first asked Sad Laura who knew we didn’t stock live scorpions, only dead ones in formaldehyde. But I soon realized Beatrice had been referred to me because I might be able to order a live scorpion for her, or for her class.

Let me describe Beatrice on that sunny fall day. She must have come directly from school. She wore a tan skirt hemmed a few inches above her knees, and it was pleasant studying the contour of her legs as flesh climbed into fabric, aspired to a cloak that concealed little because the skirt wrapped snug around her thighs and hips, and her stature in heels, skirt and white blouse was erotically precise, emerging as she did from the half-shell adorned in contemporary middle-school science teacher dress. Unlike the time I’d previously seen her, she now stood only inches apart from me, her face assuming many faces: seductive without trying, mercurial and vivid, elusive and somehow incandescent the way early Renaissance painters had limned young ladies of the court or pagan goddesses. Her hair was golden, in keeping with the light that day, and her mouth had a wry turn with something of the eager tomboy in the force of her lips when she spoke. This changeable mingling of sex and the platonic, of sensuality and girlish innocence, of ethereal beauty and playful intelligence was indistinguishable in her every word and expression. And the entire feeling of not having any fixed position regarding Beatrice was underpinned by her perfect (or imperfect) eyes. Seeing her blue and brown eyes close up was like talking to two separate people, one person at a time, and depending on which eye you happened to be staring at, you were left with a totally different impression of that person.

“Soren . . . What a lovely name,” she said, trying its sibilance against her tongue.

“So is yours.”

“Like the philosopher Kierkegaard. Either-Or.”

“He was a Dane. I’m half Swedish, on my mother’s side.”

“What a coincidence! So am I!”

“I wish I could help you,” I said, “but you’ll probably have to get a live scorpion from an exotic pet store. It would be a problem for us. We don’t carry anything live, even smaller harmless insects. There are laws and regulations about those things.”

“That’s fine, no harm in asking.” There was a trace of apology in her voice. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I know you’re busy.”

“You’re not bothering me,” I said. “I’m here to help you.”

“Then would you mind showing me the telescopes?”

“Not at all.”

“I was told you’re an expert,” she added with a sly and lovely grin.

I escorted Beatrice to the telescope aisle and answered all her questions regarding the design of refractor and reflector models, of magnification and focal length, of Barlow lenses and the difference between diverging and converging lenses, of atmospheric distortion, of the pros and cons of alt-azimuth versus equatorial mounts and motorized tracking of celestial objects and events. I explained camera attachments and open exposures to capture star and planet trajectories, meteor showers and lunar eclipses. I told Beatrice there were more scopes in the warehouse which we’d built ourselves and that someday I would take her on a tour. I then showed her a telescope for sale that I had built myself, and she became intrigued by the idea of being able to actually make a telescope.

“Do you think,” she said, “that you could show my class this beautiful telescope you’ve built, and other ones, and maybe give a short 20-30 minute talk about Galileo and astronomy in general? They would love it.”

I agreed and also agreed to leave one of the telescopes in her classroom for follow up discussion. How could I deny her?

“Here’s what I’m planning to do, Soren . . . if you visit my class next week and bring in your telescope and we get students interested . . . I’m starting an astronomy club . . . and if enough students join, then we will have a star watch night—with you, of course—and I’d like to set it up for some time in early November.”

“Early November’s an ideal time,” I said. “We can see the Leonids Meteor Shower. Saturn, Jupiter and Mars will all be visible before midnight.”

“Great! I really want this to be a success. If the first star watch goes well, then we can plan another one—either before Christmas break or sometime in early spring.”

Either-Or

Beatrice reached out and touched my arm. I was transfixed. Speechless. She smiled and said, “Thank you so much!”

That evening I had a huge fight with Gladys. We were standing in the kitchen. We often fought in the kitchen, and because the kitchen was falling apart and needed remodeling I wondered if the dreary space was a mood catalyst for our battles. Gladys and I had not been this verbal and physical in a few years, as if we’d travelled from frigid arctic wastes to the scorching Sahara or Mojave sands in the course of a day. I wasn’t even sure what we were fighting about other than I’d wanted to enter the glass room, thinking of the subject of my talk for Beatrice’s 8th grade students, and Gladys was confronting me in a deliberate attempt to derail and ruin my evening. Frustrated, I rushed at her, backing her towards the sink with the intention of holding her arms and shaking some sense into that hapless head. But Gladys grabbed a long knife from the dish rack and aimed its clean sharp point at my heart.

“Don’t you touch me!” she screamed. “Don’t come any closer or I swear I’ll cut you!”

“Go ahead,” I dared and took a small sliding step forward—a cheap taunt.

Several years ago, on Bob Crane’s sloop in the Bahamas, I had watched as Bob adroitly disarmed his 19-year-old pole-dancer girlfriend who’d been shooting off one of his guns while smashed on booze and downers. At the moment I was contemplating doing the same to Gladys but instead turned and entered the glass room, my beloved sanctuary. As I closed the sliding door I heard a muffled metallic clang against the glass sync’d with a final cry of “Fucking Bastard! Coward!” sounding much louder than the thrown knife. I decided to lock the door just in case, but Gladys has never entered the glass room while I am in here and probably never will. I did not take my eyes off the door handle to look up at her, and as the lock firmly clicked into place she had already broken down in tears and was storming off to her own redoubt.

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