My mother’s relatives on Long Island still had a pianola or player piano in their house, and all the relatives and I were standing in front of it, in the living room, not far from the front door. A tube of paper and a metal cylinder sprouted tines that looked like small animal teeth. One of my mother’s cousins (don’t remember which one, it was a large family) started the player and it was pure magic, that rickety metallic sound and the older relatives immediately singing along! “A Bicycle Built for Two” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Despite the compromised tone of the player piano you heard the melody, the most needed element for a sing-along. Having come from the World’s Fair and with all the frenzied progress assaulting one’s senses, and all the high-rise projects going up all over the city, and spaceships, and everything made from plastic injection molds, hearing this player piano and the crooning of older simpler tunes was a pleasant and balmy nostalgia, a parasol stroll down the tree-flowered lane into the Past, like Rod Serling’s great and most personal teleplay and story, “Walking Distance.” For better or worse you sensed that, two-thirds of the way through the crazy 20th Century, a huge gulf yawned between the 1960s and the century’s early years when my grandma and her siblings were kids like me. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” compared with the current number 1 chart topper, “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction).” The player piano was pretty much the last vestige of familial solidarity. In the early days it had been the hearth fire with reading and conversation, and maybe later a piano. Then during the gaslight period, a piano in the parlor or drawing room, which in many cases was replaced by a Victrola and then a radio as the family gathered for news broadcasts or their favorite serialized shows. And finally there was television—one television with black and white images and then later color—which provided some of the largest collective experiences of our nation . . . no more.

*

During his time in the merchant marine my grandfather had made it a point to ride a roller coaster in every port he visited, if there was one to ride: the higher, wilder, and crazier the roller coaster the better. According to family lore, he would ride the coaster once, get off and drink a beer, and then ride again, get off and drink another beer and then ride again, and so on. If he really liked the roller coaster, he would ride it an absurd number of times. Supposedly his favorite one was in Boston, which one night he’d ridden a total of 17 times! And that would have also meant 16 or 17 beers! Most likely he’d stopped after 10 or 12 beers, bearing in mind that he was the ship’s captain . . . were the roller coasters as good in other countries? As safe? I don’t think it would have mattered to him.

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1.

She visits at least once a month, more often if it’s a holiday month. She needs me to see that things are alright with her, and I know that they are in spite of me and our past. After the divorce, her mother had resorted to a good deal of brainwashing, but not enough, it seemed, to create a lasting severance between father and daughter . . . . She will graduate in May from Penn, and begin applying to graduate school next year. She’s matured, she’s figured things out, and she still wants this connection, though I question the nature and depth of the connection she seeks. I’m 61 years old and unemployed, and I have little to offer that would help her with her career and life. Ramona wants to become a microbiologist. After all the years I had instructed her to look outward, through a telescope, Ramona’s passion now is to go in the other direction. A microscope.

“You’re stagnating here,” she tells me. “You should take a trip.”

“And where would I go?”

“That’s for you to figure out.”

“Hmm. Maybe after you graduate. . .”

“Perfect! I can house sit while you’re gone.”

She fills the tea kettle with water and places it on the stove, a ritual she follows on most of her visits. She is a beautiful, 21-year-old woman who doesn’t seem to have inherited her mother or father’s genes when it comes to looks.

“How’s Laura, by the way? Have you seen her?”

“Saw her a few weeks ago . . . she’s good  . . . designing web pages . . . has a girlfriend.”

“I’m glad that she picked up marketable skills before your business died.”

“Me too. Laura’s been through a lot.”

Ramona stares at me. A wry turn of her mouth.

“Haven’t we all.”

The conversation switches to Wyatt.

“He may go out there to live next year. He wants those night skies,” she says.

“Really? He paints from NASA Hubble images! Maybe he wants to be closer to his mother.”

“You’re in your 60s now,” she says to me, “and years ago you had some pretty incredible experiences. You don’t need to work. Treat yourself for a change. Travel. Visit a few observatories.”

“I gave that up, remember?”

“You’re being stubborn and silly. Start again. You’ve left the glass room exactly as it was when you stopped looking through telescopes, except for the ‘tropical rain forest.’ You could start again at any time, with or without moss and lianas, and parrots! Find yourself!”

The cliché sounds more like a threat.

“I look at stars nearly every night,” I remind her.

“Yeah, outside with the naked eye.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“’You are so Scandinavian. Gloomy. Look, it’s ‘Haleing’ The sky has taken on that weird hyper-ionized tint.”

I’m well aware that, because of our past, Ramona likes to indulge her sarcasm at my expense, and I am not offended or angered. There is mild reproach in her voice, though the reproach is more reasoned and gentle than the punishing shrillness of her mother. Late February and March is not a particularly good time for her or me when I think of it. Though five years ago at this time I’d hung on every detail of Comet Hale-Bopp and became totally preoccupied with the comet, Ramona had stopped observing the comet with me. By early 1997 she had lost all interest in astronomy in spite of my cajoling her to join me, because Hale-Bopp was approaching perihelion. By the summer of ‘97 she and her mother had moved out and I swore off telescopes, as if it had been some nasty habit of 35 years. Instead, I started to fill the glass room with plants. I brought in Vincas, Philodendron and Cylamen then added several palms, Philodendron, Cymbidiums, African Violets, Anthurium, Birds of Paradise, giant cut leaf Ferns, Rubber Plants, Bromeliads. Over time the room assumed a jungle-like character: rank foliage obscuring the mission-style table stacked with my star charts and maps, untouched for four-and-a-half years or more; giant ferns and cut leaf towering to the ceiling, vines and tendrils  coiling around and ensnaring the silver barrels of the smaller telescopes, a fascinating juxtaposition contrasting the cold inorganic elegance of astronomical science with the Edenesque organic fertility of earth. A year later I acquired a couple Macaw parrots to match the tropical decor. I named the parrots George and Gracie though I never intended on using the pair for breeding purposes. At night they mostly sleep outside their cage on the limb of a rubber plant or palm tree. I occasionally find hardened droppings on a telescope, but I no longer care.

Ramona has a passion for poetry and poets. Odd, for a would-be microbiologist, or maybe her passion is not that odd as a means of self-examination. She likes to quote the famous poem of Yeats where “. . . things fall apart/the center cannot hold . . .” She tells me those lines make her think of our family, including Laura, Wyatt-Edwin, and also Beatrice. She isn’t sure, in our case, that things actually did fall apart, and prefers to view it as a rearrangement, and one where the gravitational glue is stronger than ever. It’s possible. The laws of attraction are not always predetermined. Anarchy and order, motion, entropy, may all be willed illusion. The atomic and sub-atomic levels are in constant flux.

 

2.

“I need a place to live.”

“I thought we’d already established that.”

“Kind of. I mentioned house sitting for you. Not exactly a plan. I need somewhere to live during the summer and maybe through next fall until I can get a place of my own.”

“Tired of your mother?” I ask.

“A little . . .” She finishes her tea and stands up to take our cups to the sink. “The problem is Bert.”

Bert is Gladys’s new husband, a middle manager (Director? VP?) at her marketing firm.

“He’s kind of weird,” Ramona explains. “Not like the way you’re weird, but controlling, uptight, rigid, inflexible, with draconian rules, like their house is a place for him to try out models of boorish efficiency.”

I laugh.

“He never had children,” Ramona adds. “Maybe that’s the reason.”

“And Mom?”

“She had children—a child.”

“Ha-ha.”

“Mom is mostly indifferent to my presence.”

“Lovely . . . does Bert pay attention to her? Does he treat her well?”

“I don’t know . . . she seems happy.”

“You can stay here as long as you like,” I tell her.

“Thank you!”

“And I may not be here much of the time.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“I plan on travelling . . . your suggestion, remember?”

“Please don’t think I have some ulterior motive to get you out of the house.”

“What’s his name?”

My comment breaks her up, penetrates to the core of her wit, though her laughter is a bit excessive, a result, perhaps, of nervous truth. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut. I know she had lovers in college (don’t know how many), and I wonder who among them had heard the story. I doubt she would have bothered to divulge. But what will happen when it’s a long-term boyfriend, or even a husband? What, if anything, might he eventually hear in the hoarse night whispers of flesh and pillows? And how will she shape and set up her narrative? How does one risk bringing that bleak subterranean information to the surface without fear of violent censure? Without fear of immediate rejection and loss?

“I’m not seeing anyone at the moment,” she says, ominously.

One night she’d worked late, and had only drunk one glass of wine when she decided to go outside and walk in the desert. It was freezing cold and she had wrapped herself in his jacket. She recalled how in her dream the stars had all begun to fall like snow, and she now stood on an expanse of snow, a fine glittering mantle settling on the desert plateau for miles in every direction. On each corner of the plateau stood someone important from her life: North was Virgil; Soren in the East; Laura in the West; Wyatt to the South. The figures stood unmoving, like pieces on a chessboard. She called their names, and the calling of their names lingered and floated up on the black tide, floated up to the Dog and the Hunter.  They approached her in a short line, and one by one stepped up and stared at her without saying a word, only the eternal stare, and she began to weep, trying to hug everyone but the shapes were mist and vapor, and putting her arms around the ghost of Virgil made her cry the most. The snow then began to race under her feet, a swift white carpet, and she walked faster, taking long fast steps for fear of falling as if she were on a flat escalator in an airport. And as she strode, members of the tribe appeared alongside her: two at first, flanking her, soon others, dozens more, keeping pace with her on the racing snow and whispering, a hastened sibilance, a recitation, words that sounded absurd and meaningless, like dream gibberish, and yet somehow healing her, strange balm for her aging soul, voices high and low, soprano, alto, and baritone, a choir of whispers, in pointed rhythm, in tones meant to heal and not the words themselves, arbitrary symbols designed specifically for the listener . . . Animals then joined the people: coyotes, bears, cougars, dogs, hawks, owls, ravens, crows, buzzards, sparrows, grackles, lizards, snakes, spiders, scorpions. They eventually took their leave of her—men, women, children and beasts. The racing snow abruptly stopped, and she stepped off the edge of the plateau and into outer space.

She was drifting slowly down through the void and somehow buoyant on thin air, like a cork on water, a state of near weightlessness. She waved her arms. At one moment, instead of falling, she realized she was ascending, though it was difficult to get her bearings. She saw a distant object and felt herself being pulled toward it. The object enlarged, became a giant cylinder, and she recognized the Primum Mobile telescope and was relieved at the sight of a life raft that may carry her to safe harbor. She floated toward the telescope as if  pushed by a divine breath. She grabbed a spoke of an adjustment wheel about as wide as she was tall, and hoisted herself up, a tiny pointless creature on the enormous, slowly turning barrel, a grand silver lathe immersed in the coal black sea of space. But she kept slipping, losing her footing, so she lay down on her stomach, making an X with her arms and legs, gripping the gleaming alloy skin of the telescope as it traveled through her universe. The cylinder’s turning had been steady and gradual and eventually she found herself on the underside of it and could no longer hang on. And out of the darkness Virgil’s voice whispered to her that it was okay, even beautiful, for her to let go, and she slid off the giant Primum Mobile telescope and slowly fell backwards through space, though there was no bottom, no landing for her, simply the chance of another object eventually passing by that she might reach and cling to for a time.

The vision had caused her to pass out. Later, she would understand that she’d likely succumbed to an epileptic seizure. Sunrise was breaking on the desert, and she felt cold and near death. There was a slight rigid pressure against her forehead, and she opened her eyes to find a scorpion perched there. Beatrice casually brushed the scorpion away. She then stood up and began to walk toward the horizon, toward her star, the sun.

*[SEE EARLIER POSTS 2013-2014]

I walked back to my small house on Southeast 34th between Salmon and Hawthorne. I figured Lovejoy’s murder was likely the work of a cult, but I didn’t have any idea as to which cult it might be—there were many to choose from in the Pacific Northwest. Portland is riddled with cults: Moonies, Chanting Buddhists, Heaven’s Gate, Born Again Christians, Moses David Born-Agains, Krishnas, Scientologists, Seventh-Day Adventist splinter groups, followers of “The Two” and others. You might also agree that the Masons are a type of cult.

And cults were making it difficult for me to do my job. They swarmed the streets, especially the downtown blocks, or near Burnside, or in the Northwest section, the largest transient population. The cults preyed on young, homeless street kids, or sometimes better-off-but-searching middle class kids with expensive backpacks, who were just passing through town on a tour of the West Coast. Often the predator had once been the prey himself, maybe only a few weeks earlier, before his or her brains were washed. The psychologist or sociologist will tell you it is the need to belong, the need for family, for group identity, for community, and those theories are undeniable, but there is usually more to it than meets the eye. Everyone’s story is unique.

I entered my house. The phone was ringing.

Corno . . .

“Why don’t you come back to work for me,” he said, sounding more like a command than a request.

“I’m fine where I am, D. And I’m still working for you, indirectly.”

“I guess you take this murder personally. Were you and the victim close?”

“No, not really,” I told him. “But Lovejoy was married to my mother, and I do care about her.”

“You know, I’m long past firing you over the Shad Run case. You overreached that time, Juan. We had the killer, but you defended the tribe, you fucking bleeding heart. You had no place doing that. The poor Indians, or—excuse me—‘Native Americans.’”

“It was out of our jurisdiction,” I said. “A federal case.”

There was brief silence on the other end of the line.

“Come back,” Corno said. “You’re like a son or a little brother to me.”

“I’m touched.”

“You’re telling me you lived with this man, who was your stepfather and a notable personage in the city, for almost a decade, and you knew practically nothing about him? Cut me a break.”

“Pretty much. My stepfather was hardly ever around and he didn’t care about me anyway.”

Aw . . .”

“My feelings aren’t hurt.”

“No shit . . . so, whaddya wanna do? Are you going to try and find the killer or not?”

“I haven’t been retained by anyone.”

“Maybe your mother will hire you.”

“That’s very good,” I said, laughing into the phone. “Cute . . . Witty . . .”

“You are fucking weird,” Corno said.

I was inclined to agree.

“You know, with your veteran’s status,” he added, “you could easily pick up a cushy government job, or steady police work with opportunity for advancement, like me. You do want to marry eventually and settle down, don’t you? Why are you a free agent? So you can fuck pretty girls with no bureaucrats from internal affairs up your ass all the time?”

There was a touch of jealousy in his last comment.

I passed what was left of the morning and most of the afternoon doing not much of anything. By late afternoon I poured myself a tall glass of Scotch, lit a Lucky Strike non-filter, and read for a while. I read Jung mostly, and a smattering of Gide, Huysmans, and Theodore Roethke (I was restless). I mulled over the Beowulf clue.  I made a vegetable stir fry with bulgur wheat for dinner. There’d been a shower earlier and in its wake the sky had taken on a curious mixture of turquoise, orange, and mauve.

In a way, detective Dore’ Corno had been like a father to me, or at least a mentor, and his tough guy jibes were meant to be fatherly. Everett Lovejoy, on the other hand, had been inaccessible, judgmental, and simply cruel with his off-the-cuff remarks: “You eat like a Spaniard.” Or: “I honestly don’t know what your mother sees in you . . . maybe a little of that greaser trumpet player.” He had an aura of displeasure about him, as if he were perpetually being forced to smell something awful. One time, when I’d gotten arrested for speeding well above the speed limit on 82nd Street, all he’d managed to say was, “You really are as stupid as I’d always thought you were.” I was 17 then.

But Lovejoy’s chilly opprobrium may have been preferable to my biological father, who’d basically left me with nothing in the paternal realm and never once tried to make contact with my mother (why would he?), and had no knowledge of my existence. I even wondered if he remembered their one-night liaison. Although Lovejoy had made no secret of hiding his dislike for me. He’d been a well-paid executive at _____________ and had provided for my mother, Victoria, and my much younger half-sister and me. Growing up, I’d repeatedly asked myself what type of man was better: The miserable, hateful son-of-a-bitch who’d taken care of me, or the potentially “great guy” and artist who’d fucked up my life from the get-go and still passed his days oblivious in the sunshine of L.A. or Catalina or Guadalajara. Honestly, I should have been investigating the disappearance of Sanchez de Fuca, trumpet player and womanizer extraordinaire, instead of the murder of Citizen Everett Lovejoy. Sanchez was the real fucking mystery.

There wasn’t a great deal of difference between life after death and life before death among the Pueblo Indians, and particularly the Zuni people to whom he belonged. The Zuni believed that the dead remain in the house for four days and their spirit present during this stage can be threatening and possibly harmful. After four days the spirit travels to a village-katcina and joins their deceased group of family and friends. In some villages the wife is allowed to join the male after she dies. The Zuni have no sense of punishment or atonement as do the Hopi. No Heaven or Hell, no duality in their belief system.

He was buried with the standard fetishes (etowi): cornmeal and feathered ears of corn, black prayer sticks, healing stones, kachina, two masks.

They had read the writings of Carl Jung to one another, taking turns by firelight. Three nights before his accident and death, his mother had come to him in a dream. She’d been dressed in ceremonial costume and stood near a large well. An altar had been placed in front of her, and a fish lay upon it. His mother had then gutted the fish and cast the entrails down into the well (where they’d splashed after a long descent) but kept the head. She’d lifted the fish head so he could see it clearly, and said: “Only this can save you!” His mother was Christian, having converted to Roman Catholicism while he was in his teens, and she’d been buried with all the ritual attending the Catholic Mass. She’d been a bit too dismissive of his mother and the dream: “A fish head? Really?” but was bothered by the recent tense furrows that darkened his face.

She’d kept his favorite jacket—light brown leather with a fleece lining. The jacket still held his scent, and also the scent of the elements it had protected him from over the years, and even a trace of the small cigars he occasionally smoked, but mostly she could smell his whiskered neck and jaw where it had abraded the turned-up collar, a shade lighter and buffed by the constant friction of his jaw. Out on the plateau in the circling winds and sky, she had often buried her face in his jacket collar, holding him for warmth, feeling the current of his being arcing through her. Many nights she would clutch the jacket under her blanket, inhaling and drawing him deep into her lungs, stroking the arms and back and front of it, running her fingers against the wool where so many times she’d plunged her hands under the jacket to warm them on his torso—so many fine and stolen moments.