The Star of Bethlehem

Someone must have told Beatrice about my discovery of the binary star system Scorpius-429 (a.k.a Burns and Allen) because she entered the store, chased by snow flurries, on the morning of December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day), and congratulated me. I had become something of a minor celebrity after announcing to Brainchild employees that a column on my discovery would be appearing in a coming issue of “Backyard Astronomer” and “Sky and Telescope.” Apparently another teacher from Wainwright, Mrs. Ebersol, had been at Brainchild Scientific recently and overheard some employees talking about my discovery of the eclipsing binary. Mrs. Ebersol was aware that I had spoken to the 8th grade science class about telescopes and astronomy and that I’d helped plan the star watch night in early November.

“So how does it feel to be a famous astronomer?”

She was dressed in tight jeans, a black leather jacket and black boots with long heels, which made her nearly my height. A camel hair scarf swept across her neck and upper chest. A few snowflakes clung to her hair and I noticed a lone one quickly dissolving like a fading star on the thin arc of her eyebrow.

“There’s a Buddhist saying, or several variations of the saying: ‘before enlightenment, wake up, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, wake up, chop wood, carry water. It’s something like that.”

Beatrice flashed an indulgent smile. I still didn’t know how she felt about me.

“Yes, I’m familiar with the saying,” she said. “I study Buddhism, and especially Zen, but I think you are being just a bit too humble and self-effacing, Soren. You should trumpet your discovery to the world.”

I was being self-effacing. I’d been given the chance to impress Beatrice, to exploit my discovery of Burns and Allen in the hope that it may bring me closer to her, but I’d been caught off guard, woefully unprepared. I reasoned that I had sounded confident enough, injecting perhaps the right tone of philosophy in playing down my discovery. Ultimately it didn’t matter how I handled the moment.

“It’s really not that big a deal,” I said. “Professional and amateur astronomers make discoveries all the time. Discoveries far more important than my humble binary system.”

“When are we going to have our astronomy night?”

I was stunned. In the rush and whirl of my binary star discovery I had forgotten the tentative plan and promise to Beatrice regarding a star watch evening with only the two of us. Her blue eye and brown eye were now fixed upon me in a wistful impatient stare and the tone of her question had been mildly petulant, as if she’d been expecting that I would have taken the lead in setting up this important date. I acted surprised. I acted as if I’d thought she wouldn’t remember, only to be rebuffed with an, “are you kidding me?” I apologized several times and trotted out the obvious excuse of having been lost in my work and research on Burns and Allen. To atone I offered a date some time later in the week.

“But there’s so much going on right now with Christmas and school,” she said. “Thanksgiving weekend would have been perfect.”

“Sorry. . .”

Beatrice began tapping her foot as a catalyst to setting her thoughts in motion.

“My Christmas break starts in two weeks,” she said. “Why don’t we try for a star night on the Winter Solstice?”

“That would be perfect,” I agreed. Although the solstices are not that important sidereally, I didn’t want to express a pompous science opinion that would further alienate her, even though she was a science teacher. Her choice of the solstice seemed ideal. I suggested our same location.

“I can’t think of a better place,” she said, and her words washed over me like a warm bath on that iron gray, snow-flurried morning in the false lucre Christmas season I so ordinarily loathed.

“Then it’s a date,” she whispered, turned, and walked away.

The Solstice now beckoned as the one bright point in an otherwise dreaded holiday season. Because of my weak family ties and even weaker marriage, I had shunned “The Holidays” in recent years, losing myself in work to avoid and escape any form of social commitment. And the store was busy, there were lots of orders, especially for binoculars and telescopes and astronomy-related merchandise during Christmas season. I always worked Christmas Eve Day (we closed early though), and the store was open New Year’s Eve Day until regular closing at 6:00 PM. I usually spent Christmas night with my telescopes.

In the early years of our marriage, Gladys and I would visit her mother for Christmas and sometimes take her out to the Starlight Tavern for dinner, or if the Starlight closed Christmas Day we would take mother on Christmas Eve and stay home Christmas Day. Gladys’s mother was a miserable woman—a shriveled, beady-eyed, petty and vindictive creature, who was close enough to pure evil as I’ve encountered in another human being. Watching her, I knew where Gladys had gotten her mean spirit, though she was no match for her mother, and early on I had felt sympathy for Gladys and was ennobled by the thought that I’d saved her from this woman. But I soon discovered that any sense of heroics on my part was belied by the grim reality of the marriage. Every Christmas (and sometimes Easter or Thanksgiving and always Mother’s Day) involved my playing witness to a serialized mother-daughter feud where the mother nit-picked, inveighed against and demeaned her daughter and the daughter retaliated with appropriately scripted barbs and insults. For some reason I begged off of these holiday ordeals following my affair with Carol. I’m not sure why. Maybe after seeing Roy’s madness and Carol’s pain I could no longer endure drama so trivial. Maybe I felt the marriage was really through at that point, and I no longer saw the need to please or pretend for my wife’s benefit. After all, I had committed adultery and would again—how married was I? Gladys hit back hard at first; she didn’t want to be tortured and unhappy alone. For the sake of my sanity I wanted out of any interaction with her mother. Ironically, when I was not present for these sado-masochist holiday rituals, Gladys’s mother exploited my absence to complain about me and tell her daughter one more time what a mistake in a husband I had been, a complete loser, and this only aggravated Gladys more because she believed her mother was right about me and she found it impossible to defend me but instead argued some finer point such as my paying the bills. . . At certain moments, lost in contemplation of the Rings of Saturn, or the Mare Conundrum or The Perseids, I would envision Gladys’s mother dead and experience a surge of wicked joy. Gladys once hinted at inheritance money when we were dating, but I’d known for a long time there would never be a chance of getting anything from that woman—ever.

My own parents were dead.

It would take Beatrice to guide me through Christmas 1979 and into the New Year of 1980 and the brave new decade of the 80s.

Two weeks . . . I only needed to wait two weeks, 14 days, a fortnight, but Time dragged, became a leaden weight of interminable, excruciating hours and minutes. The winter solstice arrived on an overcast day, much like the day Beatrice and I had last spoken to one another. On the 21st I found an envelope in the office mailbox with my name but no address or stamp. The note was from Beatrice (I recognized her lovely hand from a lesson plan I’d previously noticed on her desk), suggesting we postpone our night of star gazing until the following day. But the weather next day was no better, and I received yet another envelope and note to wait one more day, but three inches of snow fell on the evening of the 23rd so we were now left with Christmas Eve on Monday night and a slim chance of getting together and watching the stars because of other commitments (hers). I was surprised then, when on the morning of Christmas Eve Beatrice glided into Brainchild Scientific as though on a cushion of air…

“It’s tonight or never,” she said. “We’re going to have to start early. Is 7:30 okay with you?”

The forecast called for a clear night with temperatures in the low 30s, an ideal night for gazing at the winter sky. I was head over heels ecstatic! We planned that I would pick her up at her place and I would pack a few sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. Beatrice offered to bring Christmas cookies she was going to bake that afternoon.

I had already begged off spending Christmas Eve with Gladys and her mother—I’d been avoiding it for years. Tonight my putative wife would be taking Darth Vader to a local diner and I would make sure I’d left the house before she returned. Gladys no longer went to the Starlight Tavern. Perhaps she’d never enjoyed the Starlight in the first place but had only gone because I had liked dining and drinking there, or she may have no longer cared to be there because it dredged up memories of our first date and wedding celebration which likely made her unhappy. I didn’t much care about Gladys’s feelings regarding the tavern. I figured that if I didn’t wind up in bed with Beatrice this Christmas (a long shot but one never knew what the holidays might bring in their misguided but universal stress on human connection and intimacy) then I would make some excuse to Gladys that I’d gone out for drinks with a work buddy who’d phoned me unexpectedly. And that story would only be needed if Gladys was still awake by the time I arrived home and not passed out on the couch from a surfeit of Ginger Brandy, or her beloved Soco while the TV played the Yule Log or Mass at Saint Patrick’s or some depressing holiday film.

All the signs were in my favor. . . .

I picked up Beatrice at her place around 7:30 and we headed over to Spruce run. A brilliant night with the Pleiades and Hyades in Taurus, the reappearance of Saturn, and the Geminids providing some random shooting flares; Sirius, Orion, and all the circumpolar constellations and our neighbor galaxy Andromeda near the veil of the Milky Way. I set up my two best telescopes: the Etherscan-1200— the one that had pinpointed Burns and Allen—and the Galileo Calisto Refractor. I decanted the coffee from my thermos, a coil of steam rising off our cups. I had also brought along a flask of brandy that Beatrice and I passed back and forth. Beatrice radiant in her parka, scarf, gloves and knit cap. As she drank the brandy, she became even more animated than usual, her cheeks flushed and ruddy like a Yuletide caroler’s.

“Where is the binary star you discovered?”

“Somewhere over there,” I said, pointing at the southern horizon.

“Right, how could I have missed it?”

“You can’t see Scorpius-429 with the naked eye. You can’t see the constellation Scorpius at the moment, but when it is there I’ll show you the area where -429 is located. It’s near the stinger stars.”

“There are stinger stars? I guess that makes sense.”

I had the Calisto fixed on the Orion Nebula, a favorite object of hers. I moved the Etherscan between Andromeda and the Pleiades and a waxing crescent moon. Most of the time, however, I could not take my eyes off her. I was watching Beatrice watching. Our conversation rambled but it didn’t matter; the idea now was to let the night sky dictate whatever thoughts popped into our heads.

And I mentioned that I was not a big lover of Christmas, and that aroused some challenge in Beatrice, a gauntlet she felt compelled to take up.

“So what do you astronomers think the Star of Bethlehem really was?” she asked me as she took another snort of brandy. “A comet? Planetary conjunction?”

“Probably both,” I said.

“Or perhaps a myth,” she added, “like the nativity story itself.”

“There could be something to the astronomy, more so than the story,” I said, coming near her to adjust the focal length. “The Chinese had reported a comet in 5 B.C. There were also conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn during the period Jesus was said to have been born. But the conjunction would still appear as a single bright star, which isn’t all that interesting. My guess is the event would have needed to have been quite significant so I’m thinking a comet or nova occurring at the same time as a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and possibly Mars.”

Uncannily, as if we were following a script, Beatrice and I looked upwards and towards the East. The universe gleamed in a million diamond suns above us.

“And even if the Star of Bethlehem weren’t true or based in fact,” she said in tones so young and clever, “it’s still fun to ponder and talk about . . . I love trying to figure out the origins of things. . . .”

And I love you, I thought with a repressed excitement that tilted toward delirium.

Beatrice was standing close to me now. She turned and faced me, and then quite unexpectedly placed her hand over my heart.

“I can feel your Scrooge heart unfurling like a moon flower,” she said, her fingers fastened to its beat. “What star would your heart like to be, Soren? A red giant like Antares? Or perhaps a white dwarf? A red dwarf? A blue giant like Rigel?” She’d become a faith healer performing a laying on of hands, and I was being reborn, not so much in the Christian sense but something larger and more vast—call it the peace-that-passeth-all-understanding.

Beatrice then placed her other hand on my chest, both hands side-by-side with fingers splayed, like a binary star. I put my arms around her, closing off the space between us. Moonlight cut a perfect swath across her face so that her eyes and pre-Raphaelite forehead were concealed, but not the lower part of her face: the illuminated crystal pores of her skin; the breath threading from her glazed, slightly parted lips; her teeth a reminder of bone. Then the brown eye, the lovely dark sister, shone in the light while the blue was still eclipsed. I smelled the brandy on her mouth.

“What is the heart really? Just tissue and cells, a muscle, a ‘pump’ worked by a brain that circulates blood throughout our bodies. We’re all nothing more than a collection of proteins and amino acids.”

“Spoken like a true science teacher,” I said, and on Christmas no less. the biggest holiday dealing with the heart. You sound more Scrooge than I do.”

She laughed and held me briefly and then let go. I let go of her too, though I didn’t understand why I’d let go. Who was she really?

“Let’s go to your store!”

“Can’t do that, the store is closed.”

“So open it!”

I was at a loss for an excuse.

“I’m afraid I couldn’t take you there now,” I told her. “The alarm system . . .”

Beatrice laughed again. She was high and cheerful, aglow in the moment, a dazzling seraph.

“Are you actually telling me that you’re unable to turn off the alarm system? You do it every day! Why is tonight any different?”

I acquiesced; it was easy and didn’t take much persuasion on her part. We decided that because Beatrice lived closer to Spruce Run, I would drive her back to her house and then she would follow me in the car to the Brainchild store. She may have agreed to take separate cars as a compromise of sorts. I wasn’t inclined to open the store tonight. I could think of better things to do on Christmas Eve, but I didn’t want to disappoint Beatrice in any way and she must have sensed I was accommodating her silly whim. The night was still young (about 9:30). As her car followed mine, the winter constellations Orion and Canis Major loomed in the upper section of my windshield. At first the headlights of Beatrice’s Honda Civic were farther back, but as they drew closer one headlight became slightly larger than the other—noticeably larger—and though I knew that was impossible I saw it nonetheless . . . and the headlights began circling about one another in an elliptical orbit and they became Scorpius-429, they became Burns and Allen, and the hallucination resulted not from having logged so many hours observing Burns and Allen as one might have thought, but of recalling Beatrice a short time ago as she stood beneath the cold burning heavens in her mittens and knitted cap, a perfect celestial vision. She had said that the heart was little more than a pump to her, and I realized with a fleeting chill that she had started her fall to Earth this Christmas Eve, but I had no idea I was only witnessing the beginning of a much longer descent.

I had the key. I opened the door and immediately switched off the alarm system. We stood in a vast space of near darkness and long angular shadows, interrupted by gleaming splashes of chrome, glass, silver and mercury among the inventory. And in the store, surrounded by rock tumblers and astrolabes and Bunsen Burners, and electricity kits and human figures of clear plastic with cheaply painted hearts and viscera, in the store it really was Christmas and these toys beckoned us to play with them. There were toys everywhere, the intricate and not-so-intricate gadgets of wonder and learning; the fundamental concepts of physics and chemistry, geology and astronomy that you could see and hear and touch, that you could read about and then try an experiment to fully understand or comprehend what you had just read . . . Brainchild Scientific was nothing if not a palace of miraculous and potentially life-changing toys.

Beatrice asked if I could keep the lights turned off as she sought her way among the kits and apparatus, pausing to play with an astrolabe or a magnet, or a Galileo Thermometer. I lost sight of her.

“Where are you?”

“You have to find me.”

“No I don’t, I’m leaving.”

“You would lock me in this store overnight? I think I’d like that.”

I located her voice. She was somewhere in the aisle of smaller telescopes, perhaps spying on me.

“Come on,” she dared, “Play hide-and-seek with me. It will be fun.”

I began searching. She wasn’t in the aisle where I’d thought she’d be hiding. As well as I believed I knew my way around Brainchild, it was a large space and slightly labyrinthine in sections, and the acoustics played tricks on your ears. I tried the mineral section next.

“You’re not even warm!” she shouted, her voice reverberating off the cinder block.

I could feel her movement more than hear it, like an altered current, an eddy of warmth in the cooler air of the warehouse-store, though occasionally I heard the rustling of her clothes and the tap of her boots as she shifted to another hiding place and giggled.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are . . . You know it’s not like me to give up when searching for something . . . or someone,” I reminded her, my words loud and ringing down the eerily vacant aisles. I then heard the crackling of the Faraday Cage Ladder, and saw the writhing white worm of electrical current. I rushed to the spot where I thought Beatrice would be and she was gone. A clack of metal balls on a string, the whir of a rheostat, and the vibrating hum of a motor propeller, the zap of the Van deGraf, followed by a tinkling of chimes—all the Brainchild merchandise came alive now and I thought of an orchestra tuning up as it awaited the maestro. I could memorize the location of each gadget in the store, and as they successively spun and exploded and rattled and buzzed into life, I was able to follow her trail, planning to preempt her next surprise. But with a wild laugh and shriek, Beatrice flipped on the stroboscope and pulled me into its fluorescent amniotic sac, sealing us off from the twilight world beyond. She threw her arms around my neck, and we kissed in the bright choppy rhythm of our stroboscope omphalos, and our huge silhouette played across the wall like an erotic lantern show.

O Holy Night. . . .

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I’m Not Feeling Sorry for Myself

It rained a lot that August, but I was going to have my day at the beach, at least one day in an otherwise forgettable summer, and hopefully a decent one. When my daughter asked me if we could try a Saturday in the middle of the month, I agreed, and I agreed she could bring a friend. I had warned my daughter that the weather forecast still called for rain, but she didn’t care; she was mainly interested in hanging out with her friend, the beach was just a pretext. And as we were picking up the friend that morning, with a one-and-a-half to two-hour drive ahead of us, several drops of rain spattered the car windshield as a blunt omen that we may want to reconsider visiting the beach some
other day.

Until now the summer had been something of a loss. Quiet and dull. The kids were hardly ever around. I spent many nights on the backyard patio grilling tuna or salmon, and then drinking wine or reading until bedtime. When I’d taken a week off to go nowhere because I had no money, I was treated to unseasonably cool damp weather that made the vacation feel more like fall than summer. The air had warmed lately, but without the benefit of sun.

As we drove to the beach, I swerved the car back and forth, rocking the vehicle on its shocks and springs, my hand arcing the wheel in a 10:00 – 2:00 span. The girls emitted tame shrieks. They sensed the lack of threat but relished the simple frisson. Understandably, they weren’t interested in talking to me. I played their crappy radio station loud. (How else could I entertain them?) I was their ride, pure and simple. When they finally acquire a car of their own (insured by me no doubt), or a boyfriend to convey them from point A to point B, I will become obsolete, disposable, and another link in the chain of child dependency will have been broken. They suffer me at present for the sake of mobility.

We arrived at the beach a little past nine, and I noticed I would need to purchase beach tags for the day. In the past I had always been able to get beach tags from my in-laws, but not anymore. In order to appease the burghers of this mercantile shore town by lining their well-larded coffers, I would have to pay somewhere between 10 and 15 dollars for myself and the two teenage girls. It was criminal, really, the thought of paying to experience the beach, sand, sky and surf. And I figured we probably would not end up staying on the beach for much longer than an hour anyway.

The old man selling tags was tanned with deep seams in his leathery skin. He wore a sun-bleached blue cloth cap over hair that looked like plucked tufts of cotton. A row of tags was fastened to his hat. There was a sign with prices of day tags and another sign warning of rip tides, prevalent during hurricane season. A cool but humid wind raked the sea grass. You couldn’t feel even a little bit of sunlight today.

“Paying to sit on the beach,” I said, disgruntled. “They should stop that practice for good. I think it’s insane having to give someone money to enjoy public property. You don’t see that kind of obsession with private ownership out West.”

The old man half agreed with me. He had a gold molar and a thicket of frosted chest hair, a tangled mat of rime.

“It is a shame,” he said, “but they’re never gonna change the way they do business down here.”

“I mean, look, it’s raining, and it’s likely going to rain all day. You shouldn’t even be here enforcing people to buy tags.”

“I’m always here. Rain or shine. It’s my job.”

“Aren’t you worried about skin cancer?”

“Not today,” the tag taker said as he scanned the darkening sky. “Why don’t you go ahead and have a swim before it really starts to come down.” I then noticed some other people approaching.

I found my daughter and her friend, the little tart. They had already set up the blanket and chairs without me. Bored, they passed the time with a portable CD player, an iPod Shuffle, and my son’s Game Boy. A few short years ago they would have been splashing in the waves, but at age 13 the water seemed to hold little appeal for them. They were talking obsessively about dyeing their hair. It started to drizzle. The sand felt warm beneath the blanket, and you could smell the rain lightly tamping down its surface.

I think there was potential for trouble with my daughter’s friend. She wasn’t necessarily polite toward adults. I had seen her disrespect her mother on a few occasions. The friend didn’t seem to have a sense of boundaries, or appropriate behavior. She may gave been mildly sociopath, or a typical 13-year-old girl. She wore a pierced ring in her navel and ultraviolet lipstick. I’d been having troubles recently with my daughter, too.

I realized I needed to be home because in the past year it had become impossible for me to be anywhere else.

I also realized the date. Maybe the realization wasn’t much of a realization; perhaps the date had been gnawing at the edge of my consciousness. It was well past 10 o’clock now, and most likely she would be up, even allowing for the two-hour time difference. I didn’t feel much like calling her but I figured she would call me if it were my birthday. I also took some perverse satisfaction in calling her early and getting the greetings over with. Obviously, there was no longer anything faintly romantic or tender in calling her. The call was obligatory, polite, the right and civil thing to do, similar to calling an old girlfriend, or a grandparent, or your cousin, or your lawyer. Well, maybe not your lawyer.

I called and wished her a happy birthday, a weakening connection between us despite 20 years of marriage and having raised three kids together. She was waiting for some furniture to be delivered to her apartment. I mentioned I was at the beach with her daughter, and not just any beach, or not just a beach in any town to be more specific, and I also mentioned that it was raining. Still, I praised the beach, the luxury we folk on the East Coast have of living so near to the ocean. I expressed sympathy for anyone who would have to drive more than five or six hours to experience the ocean, to enjoy the beach, on either coast
. . . Atlantic or Pacific.

“Why did you put yourself in a place so landlocked?” I asked her. “It’s six or seven hundred miles from any significant body of water.”

“It’s beautiful here,” she said.

“I know, but there’s no ocean.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s still beautiful. Snow capped mountains everywhere you look. The lake is huge.”

“True, but there’s still no ocean.”

“Are we through?”

“As far as I know we are . . . Oh, did you mean this conversation?”

It began to rain harder, tight pin-like perforations on the water and sand. I could tell this was no passing shower and that we would need to come up with a new plan to waste a few more hours in an already lost day. The girls weren’t disappointed; they were done with the beach anyway and now wanted to spend some time at the stores on the outdoor mall and promenade. I gave them money for shopping, whatever junk teenage girls buy to amuse themselves. The few people who remained on the beach folded their beach chairs and collapsed umbrellas. I questioned why they’d set up umbrellas in the first place, maybe as a shield from the rain, certainly not from the sun. I was saddened watching them, saddened by the whole dreary day, by the lack of warmth and sunlight in the middle of August.

On the mall the girls wandered from store to store. I walked past a young couple pushing a baby stroller. I was seeing myself and how I may have appeared to others when that had been my reality many years ago. The church was always in sight; its gray stone façade and bell tower looming well above the single-story shops. When the rain began pouring down, I ducked under the awning of a shop that was directly alongside the church. In contrast to the gothic gloom of the stone church and its bell tower, the parish was raffling off a pale aquamarine Ford Taurus convertible. There was something vulgar in the idea of the car raffle, not unlike the way the town sold beach tags to access the beach. Shouldn’t God and Nature be free? An inalienable right? I overheard a family from Brooklyn talking about going in the church to light a candle. The mother pleaded with her children and relatives to join her inside the church. It was a special day for the mother for two reasons: Her father had died on this day eight years ago, and it was also her wedding day. Uncanny, because it was also my ex-wife’s birthday today, and 20 years ago, less than six weeks after her birthday, we had been married in this same church. Should I enter the church now? The family and other worshippers already inside—lighting votive candles, kneeling, crossing themselves, dipping their fingers in holy water and crossing themselves—would have no idea regarding the significance this church held for me.

I thought: Of course, how else but by entering the church would he embrace the cross and receive his enormous personal wound, his own bitter sacrament. He could wallow in self pity, or self flagellation, or maybe pray for forgiveness, his choice. He could compare that day two decades ago—a profoundly happy one—with today, which wasn’t necessarily unhappy but simply less certain regarding the future. As drenched as he was, he couldn’t quite bring himself to step inside the vestibule and wait until the storm had passed.

Where were the girls?

I had been through a similar time of dislocation in this town nearly six years before. It was Thanksgiving weekend. We had planned on arriving at the shore house Friday night with all the dinner leftovers from Thursday. Before leaving our house for the shore late Friday afternoon, we had watched the documentary film “Crumb” which had set the tone for the rest of the day. We then made the one-and-a-half hour drive to the shore with two eight-year-olds, an eleven-year-old, and a beagle puppy, and a cooler loaded with Thanksgiving leftovers. The house had electric heat but no one was there and the heat had been turned off. Although it wasn’t freezing, as soon as we’d arrived I turned on all the baseboard heaters. About one hour later the electric power had abruptly shut down. With the aid of a flashlight I opened the service panel. The main breaker had tripped and when I touched the panel it was as hot as a skillet. We then called the fire department. A few trucks were dispatched along with the fire chief, who said to leave the house at once and leave the electric turned off until the service had been upgraded. There were flashing red and white lights all along the street and a crowd had gathered. By now it was about 9:30 or 10:00 at night and chilly. Kids were skateboarding and rollerblading past the house. It felt as if we were on a movie set. After the crowd of gawkers had dispersed, I began loading the car for the long dark drive back home. The neighbor stopped by, curious as to what had happened, and we talked for a while. He was an elderly gay man who lived alone, and it was always a pleasure talking to him because he was witty and liked to comment wryly on the petit-bourgeois mentality of the shore town. We joked about my situation despite its inherent danger and safety risk, and we joked more about the crowd voyeurism once everyone had spotted the fire truck. The neighbor had helped to lighten up my evening and I’d felt grateful to him. I finished loading the car and we left . . . and the next day I’d heard that the neighbor had dropped dead of a heart attack later that same night.

Where are they, my daughter and her bad influence girlfriend? I didn’t trust the girlfriend; there were problems with the mother. But maybe they all had problems with their mothers at that age. I wondered if the girls were safe. I wondered. . . .

The gift shop was a momentary refuge from the rain and one of several almost identical gift shops on the mall. There were drinking mugs, tee shirts and sweatshirts all silk screened with the name of the town and a picture of its famous lighthouse, a gull or two flying past, maybe a red heart on some of them. Cases of tacky meretricious baubles with an occasional interesting piece from an estate sale incongruously thrown in. Shell jewelry, crystals and seashore tchotchkes—souvenirs in abundance. The shop had a mildly perfumed smell. It felt safe and antiseptic and demanded nothing from you intellectually; you could wile away your time browsing or pretending to browse. Unlike the church, the shop held no memories or reminders.

Outside it teemed.

“How’s business?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Could be better.”

“Could be worse.”

“You think so? Rain on a summer day? All day? Not just a passing storm mind you.”
“I see. A miserable day,” I said. “I wish it would stop too.”

The shopkeeper didn’t reply. I approached the counter. A bloated paperback fantasy novel lay alongside the register.

“At first I thought I would go inside the church to get out of the rain,” I said, “but I couldn’t bring myself to go in there.”

“I take it you’re not religious,” the shopkeeper said with a false indulgent smile. She had close cropped rust colored hair, big eyeglasses, and freckles on her hands. She didn’t mind talking to me for the moment; she had nothing better to do. I knew she was one of those people who believed all our problems were the direct result of big government interfering in our lives.

“It’s more of a personal reason,” I said, pacing, staring at her with a degree of tension and anticipation. “I was married in that church . . . but I’m not married anymore.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the shopkeeper said with no genuine sympathy.

“Haven’t you heard of me by now?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you know who I am?”

Suspicion spread across her face. She braced her body and shrunk deeper into the cube of air behind her cash register. When she didn’t answer me, I stepped up to the register and pronounced:
“I am the one who stands at the counter and cries!”

And indeed a tear had started to leak from the corner of my eye. I blinked, felt the cascading tear, the wetted eyelids.

“I think I’m going to ask you to leave now,” the shopkeeper said with a baleful look. “I’m not comfortable with this. Not comfortable at all. Get out of here right now or I’ll call the police.”

“But I love you!”

“I said: GET OUT!”

The doorbell tinkled. A cozy-looking, 30-something, bed-and-breakfast-type couple entered the shop. The shopkeeper looked at me one last time and nodded her head in the direction of the door.

I emerged from the gift shop to a scene that looked slightly out of place: My daughter, and her friend, and a policeman walking towards me. It wasn’t the sort of vision I’d been expecting. The policeman had parked his patrol car at the edge of the mall, on the street next to the church, and he’d left the flashers on and the siren light turning, so a small crowd had gathered to watch. I saw my daughter curtly say yes to the policeman’s question that I was her putative father. I felt guilty and confused, believing that my recent scene with the shopkeeper was somehow linked to my daughter’s arrest. I tried to get clear of the gift shop, but it was already too late. The girls and policeman were soon upon me.

The policeman was here because my daughter and her friend had been caught stealing condoms in the local drug store. I was sure my daughter’s friend had instigated the theft but what difference did that make, frankly? Rather than have the girls simply return the condoms to their assigned location in the store, the drugstore manager had decided to press shoplifting charges, maybe as a lesson to these miscreant teenage hussies. The policeman explained the crime to me with some personal embellishment and point of view. He was annoyed, bothered, he had better things to do as a policeman. He had a gash or drying cut on his left hand, near his wedding ring. My daughter and her friend showed no remorse or embarrassment over what they had done, but instead acted insulted and put upon, and even somewhat violated by the absurdity of their alleged crime. Theft this trivial, this silly, didn’t really matter. Come on!

“And you’re Teresa’s father?” the policeman asked me.

“That’s right.”

“Can I see your driver’s license please?”

The rain had faded to a nagging drizzle. As the policeman questioned me, I noticed the shopkeeper emerge from her den of curios and take several steps in our direction. “Hey, Bill,” she called out. “Can I talk to you a minute? S’important.”

The policeman excused himself and walked toward the shopkeeper. I sensed a municipal conspiracy brewing. There were more of them now. I thought I saw the Ancient Mariner of the beach tags skulking along the edge of the sidewalk, and I imagined the drug store owner had shown up too, and I even thought that I saw my ex-wife in this swelling crowd, but more as a symbol of everything I needed to shun and avoid if I were ever to have a life again.

“What were you doing in that store?” my daughter asked me.

“Nothing. Looking around. Shopping.”

“We didn’t go in there. Did you steal something?”

“Of course not,” I told the girls. “Stealing is wrong, and shoplifting is a crime, even if you were only stealing those condoms as a prank.”

“Right, so then why is that lady talking to the cop?”

“I have no idea.”

It continued to drizzle, warm and clinging water. The policeman walked back over to us, my driver’s license a loose damp tube in his fist, and he looked at me as if to say, “What the hell is wrong with you, Bud?” God only knows what the shopkeeper had told him. I’d meant her no harm, but didn’t care for her kind. The policeman also held a sheet of folded paper underneath my driver’s license.

“Where is Tallfescue?” he asked, glancing at my license before handing it back to me, the drizzle oily on his tanned forehead.

“Near Lament.”

“Lament . . .” he mulled over the name . . . “That’s Lament County, right?”

“Yes, yes, it is.”

The policeman stared past me, or rather slightly around and above me, like I’d grown a second head, and it was that sprung head he now addressed.

“You’re going to have to leave town. Is your car parked near here?”

It was a total violation of my rights, but I was tired. I pointed to the public lot.

“Can we ever come back?”

“Not today,” the policeman said. “Maybe not for a week or two. I’ll escort you to the highway entrance ramp.”

“That won’t be necessary. I know the way out of here.”

The policeman didn’t care for my remark. “Please let me do my job,” he admonished, and then handed me the note paper. “Here’s a phone number for Lament County Social Services. I suggest you contact them as soon as possible so they can assign a counselor for your daughter. The girl is obviously troubled. I assume there’s no mother at home. I am asking that you do this and get your daughter a counselor in lieu of juvenile court which could result in juvenile detention. Do you understand?”

I did.

“Call them first thing Monday morning. We won’t get the other girl’s parents involved because she’s with you and is your responsibility, and we’ve decided not to press charges for shoplifting.” He stared at my real head this time, and said, “Let’s go.”

The police patrol car escorted us to the border and then drove away. Once the car was out of sight, we turned around and drove about an eighth of a mile back into town, to this ice cream and burger stand that we all enjoyed. The girls had fries and slices of pizza and I ate a fish sandwich on a Kaiser roll with a slice of warm lettuce and tartar sauce. We needed some gratification; we’d had nothing but disappointment and trouble here. One of the straps had broken on my daughter’s flip-flop as she’d hobbled over to the window to pick up three cones of ice cream and carry them back to us.

The patrol car sped into the parking lot, brakes squealing. It was the same officer, and he flew into a rage at the sight of me and the girls. I jumped out of the car and tried to shout him down. He drew his weapon and fired. I dodged the first bullet, like Neo in “The Matrix.” I rushed the officer and took him by surprise, wresting the gun from his hand. I was rabid. I held the entire ice cream stand hostage: the short-skirted teenage waitresses, the shocked terrorized families in their petroleum-wasting-global-climate-warming SUVs, the crotchety retirees with nothing better to do on a rainy August day. Soon there were reinforcements: State Highway Patrol, Coast Guard, Black-Ops and Navy Seals; helicopters overhead, their blades blatting, and sea planes without advertisements swooping in. I was picked off by a sniper concealed in the reeds of the estuary behind the dock of the ice cream stand. The sniper’s bullet entered the back of my head behind the ear. My last vision was a regurgitation of my spattered blood amid horrified screams only a split second before the cliché of the lights going out. Parentless, my daughter was remanded to the custody of the state, yet another casualty of the juvenile system, and she would spend the rest of her life in and out of correctional facilities and on the streets. Her friend would be okay.

The girls were silent and gloomy as we left the seashore town, but they seemed to perk up the further we moved away from the mildly awful day we had experienced which now seemed to fade from the rear of the car like wake lines from a speeding boat. The girls began to titter and chat about dyeing hair, and they asked me to stop at the drug store when we got back into town. They wanted to buy black hair dye. My daughter was going for the Goth look, pretty normal at her age, even though her hair was light brown or ash blond in summer, and the change would be ludicrous.

“Mom would never let you dye your hair black,” I said.

“But Mom’s not here is she?”

“But I am. And I forbid it too.”

“You don’t care if I do it. Don’t pretend you do.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I care. I think it will look bad on you, sweetie.”

“Well, I’m doing it anyway,” she said.

And as we approached our home town, sunlight burst from the clouds, a hot and sunny August day.

The dead man, Everett Lovejoy, and I had never been particularly close. Lovejoy for the most part had minimal paternal involvement in my life from the time I was nine until I’d left home at 18 and joined the army to escape going to jail. My mother and Everett divorced a year later. My biological father was Sanchez de Fuca, a trumpet player of some renown in Mexico, and I have no memory of him. He was reportedly very talented, handsome, charming, and a notorious womanizer. My lovely mother was a modern dance teacher at the time, and once when Sanchez played an extended gig in Portland, she had been another one of his road conquests. He’d never known that she was pregnant. My mother mentioned that she had once tried to make contact with him, so at least he would have known I existed—like he cared. My mother had constantly checked the Northwest jazz club circuit on the off chance Sanchez would be playing in one of those clubs, but to her knowledge Sanchez never played in the Northwest again (not further north than San Francisco). One time my mother had even driven the 14 hours to the Keystone In San Francisco because Sanchez was reportedly playing there, but she’d missed him by a day.

My mother’s name was Victoria and she had often told me about the choice of my name, and about her name; about the maps she’d pored over as a young girl transplanted from northern Minnesota, and also how as a young girl she had ridden the ferry from Anna Cortes to Victoria, describing how beautiful and powerful the experience of that ferry ride had been for her. The San Juan Islands were dramatic, fantastic, and the straits this vastness. To the girl Victoria whose name would be forever linked to Vancouver Island, the passage across those straits had felt like she was sailing to the ends of the Earth. I was named after those straits. And today I wasn’t particularly sad or emotional as I watched Everett’s body being hoisted onto the gurney. He’d been more of an unfortunate reminder of my real and eternally elusive father.

My being at the scene of the crime had been no coincidence as Detective Porto had suggested. In my mailbox that morning was an envelope with just my name typed on it. The contents of the envelope were a single sheet of fine, lightly marbled paper, with an unsigned message, again typed, that read:

THERE WILL BE A PERFORMANCE OF INTEREST
TO YOU IN FRONT OF THE ART MUSEUM AT 1:30
THIS AFTERNOON. YOU MAY WANT TO ATTEND.

Not much of a performance, I thought.

I’m not sure how I ended up being a private detective, in Portland Oregon, in the late 1970s. Maybe my questionable origins and evolution is a matter of detective work in itself. I have no set of principles that I live by, and only a meager but universally accepted value system, which consists of the Golden Rule and a few of the Ten Commandments with a dash of Proverbs thrown in. The Tao-te-Ching is my main book. I’ve gained immensely from reading Lao-Tse and Chaung-Tzu and the philosophy is certainly tied in with the Shaolin, Ba-Gua and White Crane boxing I’ve practiced since leaving the army. I tend to follow my third eye, to go with the flow (or The Tao or Way), to pay close attention to instinct and intuition and the face of reality as opposed to the mind’s interpretation of it. Much of what I know now, and why I’m here, and how I make my way in the world, came from being in Vietnam where I developed a healthy bullshit sense regarding dangerous heroics, and command, and ideology, and the bullshit sense happened to keep my ass alive. I’m like the snake, I try to stay invisible. People don’t need to watch me watching them, or watching other people. I pretty much blend in with my surroundings. I don’t obtrude or intrude. I don’t stand out. I’m camouflaged. No one notices me. At times I think I’m invisible, or certainly that I have the ability to erase myself the way they used to show in old cartoons when the cartoonist was demonstrating how animation works, and Bugs or Daffy, or Porky would be shouting for help at their creator as first their limbs and then their torsos and finally their heads being erased on the page. I often feel like that. Like I’m made of ink and erasing myself all the time . . . But that still doesn’t explain how I wound up here.

Her shop is in Selwyn. It has a nice feeling about it: clean and well scented, with all its delicate handmade papers, writing boxes, calligraphy tools, stationery kits, Japanese prints and rice papers, fountain pens, nibs and inks. There was a monastic Buddhist appeal in its atmosphere, more in the Japanese Zen traditions than the Tibetan or Chinese. I feel comfortable coming into this store, and the moment I see her, Melanie always give me this sweet, infinitely suggestive smile, because she knows what’s coming. She is gorgeous, with an angelic sensuous glow about her, as in her work, something you immediately want to touch. But for now I’m here on business and figure I would get business out of the way. Hopefully it wouldn’t take very long.

“What do you know about marbled papers,” I asked her.

“Are you kidding?” she said. “This is my trade, my livelihood.”

“Right . . . So, I guess this paper could be one of your creations?” I said, showing her the note.

Melanie studied the paper cursorily. She didn’t need to examine a watermark.

“Yes, this paper is one of my own designs,” she confirmed.

“It’s beautiful.”

“Thank you. I like it too.”

Might you remember anyone who’s purchased this particular style of paper recently?”

“My God, Juan. I could go through my ledger and maybe find the order, but the paper could have been purchased a long time ago. I’ve been manufacturing this design for two years. And there’s always the possibility that your note writer didn’t buy the paper in my store, but maybe at a gallery, or The Gallery, or Powell’s Books, or some other bookstore or craft store that I sell to on consignment.”

“How about the ink?”

“Ball point.”

“A shame, using a ball point pen on your paper. Doesn’t absorb.”

“Definitely, such a waste . . . but the paper is no longer mine at this stage.”

“So I guess the note writer was not an aesthete . . . which means not likely someone who would shop at your store regularly, who would buy from you regularly . . . Do you have any employees?”

“You know I don’t.”

“But I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks. You could have hired someone in that time.”

“A couple weeks is too long for me, baby,” she said with a salacious wink. “I did recently take on an apprentice.”

“Male or female?”

“Male”

“Elderly? College student?”

“25 . . .” She smiled at my reaction. “Don’t worry. He’s gay.”

“I wasn’t worried,” I said.

Melanie thrust one leg toward me. She had on black stockings, or leotard, beneath a short black leather skirt. I loved the shape of her thigh.
“So, am I a suspect? It gets me a little hot thinking that I might be your suspect.”

“Everyone’s my suspect.”

“Must be hard to live that way.”

She came closer now and slipped into my arms. I held her tight.

“You’re a big piece of man candy, aren’t you? Mexican and —-”

“Finnish”

“That must account for your size.”

“I think so, but my mother was a ballet dancer. Fairly petite. Or lithe would better describe her.”

“You have that perfect mix of Latin and Scandinavian genes.”

“Finns are not Scandinavian,” I reminded her.

Melanie’s apartment was upstairs above the store. She now closed the store, reached underneath the register and produced a neatly rolled joint (perhaps another one of her papers?).

“Come on upstairs,” she said.

She got out of bed and padded toward her dresser to get a cigarette. She had the most graceful and beautifully sculpted body I had ever seen. Her hair was this wavy reddish gold, but a color somehow all its own, and at the moment her hair made a lovely weave against her light-skinned back. She’d cut the front of her hair in bangs. She had green eyes.

I’d first seen Melanie at coffee and pastry shop next door. I’d been enjoying a strong Sumatran blend (this was in the days before I’d switched to tea) and staring out the front window, when a lovely young woman with soft hair passed by on the street. She had drifted quickly across my field of vision like some hazy remnant of a dream and then she briefly paused at the edge of the café’ window. A door swung open. I had forgotten there was an apartment above the book store next to the café. My mystery girl became literary, artistic. Maybe she worked in the store for inspiration while spending her evenings in the studio apartment, feverishly penning her great first novel, occasionally stopping her hurried but neat and calligraphic scrawl to gaze down at the life on her street: A look weighted with innocent contemplation. I might even be a witless passerby plucked by her Muse, grist for a significant character in her story. We might end up in love! I’d observed the plain dark wooden door that was barely noticeable in the shops’ row of faux art-deco façades. A light rain sizzled on the pavement. I’d left her a note wedged in the shiny brass mail slot of her door. The note had read: “To the Beautiful, Graceful and Flaxen-haired Writer of my Dreams,” and visited the store the following day under pretext, and exposed myself as the note writer. How ironic that I was visiting Melanie this afternoon about a note.

She had grown up poor in Washington State, in the Yakima Valley. There were weird family problems, and the domestic scene had been kind of fractured and depressing. Although she had some fond memories of her girlhood in the Yakima Valley, Melanie had quit home as soon as possible to attend The University of Oregon with some ambition of being a poet or writer. She had run with a fairly wild literary bunch in those days who had ties to Ken Kesey and she’d even been on the dairy farm a few times and knew him casually, and she’d also been lucky enough to have met Ginsberg, Corso, Ken Babbs and William Burroughs among others. But maybe because of her upbringing Melanie would not completely let go of herself or finding out how to make her way in the world. She had no inclination to end up on the streets, or even struggle, she understood the game and what needed to be done. She’d become obsessed with paper and the craft of hand-printed paper and paper making. She’d gotten her degree and attended graduate school, and she’d become a known artisan in the city and a modestly successful business woman, who also taught classes in paper making. She was creative and spiritual and sexually expansive without being crazy, addicted or simply out there. She still wrote and published poetry in some of the literary journals around Portland and Eugene, and some of her poetry was pretty good.

She lit a clove cigarette, the smoke making a shifting boa about her neck and shoulders, and I thought of the reptilian boa in the park. A cloying smell like incense or the cannabis we had just smoked penetrated the room—a clinging trail of our recent lovemaking. Melanie sat near me on the edge of the bed, smoking. The clove oil in the cigarette crackled a little as she drew on it, like some dud firecracker.

“What do you want to do with your life, Juan?”

“I think I’m already doing it,” I told her.

“Playing cop?”

“I am a cop.”

“You were a cop . . . and I’m not only talking about jobs or careers . . . but . . . how to live . . . how you want to live . . . what matters to you . . . that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? I know you’ve been through some bad experiences—growing up, the war, police work—and you’re kind of rootless, you have this very tenuous connection to your family and your roots.”

“Like you.”

“Not exactly. True, I’m not what you’d call a family girl, but I can hop in the car and drive up to Washington and my people, for better or worse, will still be there. But you never knew your father, you don’t see your mother, and you’ve known to question why you’re still here. You must want some meaning, some connection.”

“Maybe,” was all I said.

Melanie has finished her clove and is back in bed now and curled over me, talking into my chest, placing her words closer to my heart. These trysts with Melanie often veer to the more sensitive side of things, and I realize I’m thinking of Anna now, Anna Cortes. Melanie has this tendency to care and nurture, to get under the surface of things, she’s an artist, but one who wants feelings to matter, and while I admire that quality in her, the quality isn’t one that I happen to possess, nor Anna. Anna Cortes is all brains and instinct, a powerful combination. Melanie is brilliant too, but intelligence doesn’t define her. Like me, Anna tends to be clinical about relationships and not overly intimate. I rarely have the sort of conversations with the linguist Anna Cortes that I have with the fine paper designer Melanie. But when I do have one of those conversations with her I know it’s important and I should pay attention.