As Gladys and I continued our steady drift into the comfort zone of non-communication, I became more deeply involved with celestial observation. I had started again in the mid-to-late ‘80s with Ramona helping out.  I continued to pursue binaries, although less in the 1990s, a period rich in the study of comets. Around the time of Beatrice’s letters I’d been pre-occupied with Shoemaker Levy-9 and Jupiter. I’d been periodically following the comet’s extremely elongated path since 1992 when a close approach to Jupiter caused the comet to break into fragments from the planet’s powerful tidal forces. In July of 1994, while Wyatt-Edwin was meeting his mother in Arizona, I observed the first fragment strike the surface, Io hovering above to the right. And though you did not actually see direct impact because the surface was turned away, one could make out the hazy disturbance on the edge of the planet; later the mark of impact became visible. Over the next six days 20 more fragment impacts would occur, a gigantic pummeling, leaving a macule chain across Jupiter’s banded surface.

Two weeks after Wyatt-Edwin flew out to Arizona, I stopped by Laura’s one evening on my way home from work. Some photographs of Beatrice and Wyatt-Edwin had just arrived in the mail. I stared at the color prints of Wyatt-Edwin. In a few he had a yearning and yet slightly uncertain look; in others he appeared perfectly content. I was unnerved, though, at the health and happiness of Beatrice. She beamed at the camera. Virgil managed to be in only one photo with her, and there was another of the three of them together with the mushroom domes of the Empyrean Observatory looming in the background . . . a happy family. I should have been happy for her in her new life, but couldn’t escape the feeling of having been slapped in the face—certainly her abrupt departure and lack of caring had been a slap in the face to Laura and Wyatt-Edwin more than it had been to me, but I was still bitter. Beatrice wore her hair fairly short, which somehow enlarged her heterochromia, the eyes more prominent sans the distraction of hair. She gave Wyatt-Edwin a big strangling hug, as if she would break his spine or draw him back inside her so she could start over again. She had barely aged. I would have expected some lines of cynicism and disappointment on her face, some small road map of her pain these past ten years, but her skin was fine and perfect, tan, unwrinkled. It had never been easy to see the feelings swimming behind those different colored eyes, as if the mood in one eye always negated or canceled out the other, a kind of yin-yang symbol. Even with her shorter hair she was the same alluringly ethereal Beatrice I remembered. In the hard red clay earth of the Arizona desert and mesa, Beatrice still maintained her aura of impenetrable radiance, and yet I harbored resentment towards her. After all, Wyatt-Edwin hadn’t seen his biological mother in over a decade, and he was my son too. I’d often felt helpless in being able to parent him because of my situation with Gladys and Ramona (though there’d been no expectation of my parenting, or co-parenting). I’d never liked the way Beatrice had left Laura with the job of raising our son, though Laura had been doing fine.

And now, at long last, would come the moment of understanding and reconciliation, the mother and child reunion, and all would be forgiven . . .  maybe. Perhaps the degree of someone’s attractiveness unconsciously biased us as to whether or not we’d forgive them. I knew Beatrice would get a pass and a chance at atonement, and that thought angered me in a way I couldn’t quite shake off. Looking at the recent pictures on the mesa, in the desert canyons, I could see that the years had graciously allowed her to evolve her narcissism. Her perpetual self-regard had not been fully formed when we’d first met.

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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.

With all the Friday traffic, we didn’t arrive at the cemetery offices until five minutes till four when the office closed. I told the mortuary representative who greeted me that I was looking for my parents’ graves. It had been eight years since I’d been here, and I couldn’t remember exactly where the plot was located. The representative was a well-dressed woman in a gray business suit, pleasant but reserved and somewhat guarded. She may have been put out by my end-of-business request—the business of the dead. She stepped into another room to find the location of the family plot and print out a map. The office was about to close . . .  I waited . . . I read something hanging on the wall: a long paragraph about a man who’d lived centuries ago in the middle east, and was a carpenter, and hadn’t done much with his life until his death at the age of 33. I was so weary from driving all afternoon that it took maybe 15 seconds before I realized the Catholic homily was talking about Jesus, the message being how much God as the Son, the man who hadn’t done very much on the surface, had ultimately changed everything. The woman from the mortuary returned with the map, and drew a circle for me around the family plot, and explained how to find it (finding the plot would soon prove to be a great deal more difficult than her tidy explanation). I asked her if I could use a restroom, and she appeared amused by my request, though I found nothing amusing about it, maybe I had a look of desperation—my bladder certainly wasn’t amused! With a complicit smile, the woman directed me to use the one in the conference room.

The sky was dark as lead at 4:00 on an August afternoon; air charged with electricity, thunderstorm just minutes away, and M. and I were wandering among the graves, searching for my parents, to no avail. The problem was that the graves hadn’t been well maintained, the cemetery grounds crew could only do so much, and ongoing maintenance and care was the responsibility of the families and/or loved ones. I was reminded of the scene at the beginning of “Night of the Living Dead” when Barbra and Johnny are at their father’s gravesite and Johnny is trying to spook Barbra by playing a zombie (“They’re coming for you, Barbra.”) until a real zombie approaches from out of nowhere, kills Johnny, and begins eating him. We had the perfect setting for a horror flick, but there was no horror here, only frustration. And we were visiting in the exact same time of year, almost to the day where, a decade earlier, I stood on this hill looking at the grave of my father, and then looked down the hill at my mother leaning against the car, still very much alive but unable to climb the gradual hill because of her polio leg and slippery grass. A year later, again, almost to the day, we buried her in the place where I now stood.

M. finally found them. A miracle! I had thrown out a couple more family names and she had discovered a grave with the name “Edythe Manss” my great aunt Edie and that meant my parents were close by. We tore away the grass that had partially grown over their names. What struck me at the time, after this crazy searching in the cemetery, was the impersonal character of it all. I don’t know, maybe we were in a hurry, and it was extremely hot and humid and on the verge of a massive storm. I looked at the markers, at the names of my mother and father, just names and dates like the rest of the stones and plaques that crowded this earth, though it had been more than that, much more. The  “more” lives on in my memory.

They never visited me in my dreams, never guided me or offered a revelation from the hereafter, or even a simple “hello.” But I do think of them. I keep pictures.

We left the burial grounds and headed to a local Shop-Rite, which had a bathroom for washing the soil and grass stains from our hands, and also a liquor store. Rush hour on a Friday afternoon, oppressively humid August misery, scurrying crowds, growl of thunder. Waiting for M. to come out of the bathroom, I recalled that, on this same street my parents would take me for ice cream custard summer nights at a Dairy Queen type of place, and across the road there was a German-American restaurant where the extended family (three of whom were in that family plot besides my parents) would go for sauerbraten and ox-tail soup on New Year’s Day. On the spot where I now stood there’d once been a chalet with an ice skating pond, and nearly six decades later, I waited for M. with those late 1950s memories and the present moment light years apart.

She would treat the silver — hammer, bend, shape, twist, braid — then work on settings, turquoise mostly, but also garnet, moonstone, jade and amber, occasionally lapis-lazuli. Out there turquoise was the stone of choice. Navajo country, after all.

He’d taught her well, though he always had a natural affinity for the material and a mastery of craft that she would never attain. A number of people had told her her pieces were as good as his, but she wasn’t fooled by their praise, didn’t believe it for a second. Any trained eye could detect the subtle Pueblo esthetic and consummate workmanship of her late husband.

The various hues and lusters of her gems, scattered across the work table, were like the stars in their different magnitudes and colors.

It was a lonely place. No, not lonely—solitary—more like the silent deafening choir of the heavens each night. She wasn’t lonely among the tribe, among the people, even when she hadn’t seen anyone for a few days, or a week, other than the tourists who stopped to appraise her wares. Many of the pieces had originally been made by him, and she had finished some of his pieces herself while others would always remain unfinished. She took her time completing a piece he had started, and she wasn’t always as careful or meticulous with her own work. All of it brought her a sense of calm, of serenity, but also pain, exquisite pain that she could never quite find the words to describe, like a hard growth as big as a fist that lived inside her.

Things were different now, much different. She knew that in her skin and marrow.

For seven years they had the sun, had it together, felt like they had it all to themselves, on climbs and hikes, exploring the ancient arid clay, the timeless geologic formations that only deceptively appeared timeless. Everything would eventually reach its end, including her, and him, long before the mesas crumbled. At the time she’d given little thought to mortality. She was in her 30s, alive and happy, and in love, living with a man whom she would never have imagined living with, in a place where she had never dreamt of being.

She’d returned to drinking after he died. Although long past other means of getting high, drinking still offered her a refuge of numbness and temporary amnesia, and a hastened certain drift to unconsciousness each night. She rarely started while working on her jewelry. She needed her eyesight and didn’t want her vision to fog or blur when handling small fragile stones and metal. Then once her work had ended for the day, she would allow the wine or beer (usually wine, except in extreme heat) to take charge. It was the easiest thing in the world to do, and besides the sheer narcotic pleasure of alcohol coursing through her veins, drinking heavily removed any sense of accountability from her life. Although there were times when I might have gladly embraced some gesture of remorse or penance from her, or maybe a simple heartfelt apology, such a gesture had never reached me, and I’d learned to accept that it probably never would.

 

Chapter 20 — Home

“I had an affair,” she said.

Gladys and I were seated in our living room facing one another. Monday afternoon. I had been home for all of 20 minutes which had allowed us enough time to talk excitedly about the coming baby. The segue from “baby” to “affair” was like a sweet melody crashing into a dissonant chord. And something in Gladys’s timing seemed grotesque, as much as she may have needed to get her announcement over with—to purge, atone, confess, release, wallow in catharsis, seek forgiveness? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow at least and given me a little more time to bask in the strange but euphoric glow of impending fatherhood? Gladys became frightened. The look on her face as she began telling me of the affair had been direct and honest in the wake of shared tenderness, but then my face must have darkened instantly because her expression instantly turned fearful, hesitant, mostly worried. She may have felt the need to soften the blow by calling me in Arizona with news of the pregnancy. I guess she believed we were closer now, which we undoubtedly were. Nature had already seen to that.

“Who?”

“You’re not going to like this . . . Bob Lane.”

Bob Lane? How was that even possible? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, because if there were ever two people less likely to engage in a relationship it would have to have been those two. Where were Bob’s playmates? His bimbos? I could understand his eventually tiring of them and seeking out someone more intelligent, more mature, someone he could actually talk to and conduct a life with, but Gladys? What on Earth did he see in Gladys? And what did Gladys see in him? Possibly wealth (no small thing). At least we cared enough for each other despite all our problems. Occasionally I’d found it difficult to imagine Gladys having sex with anyone, but she and Lane rolling in the hay was beyond my comprehension.

“Bob Lane . . . Wow . . . I always thought you hated him.”

Gladys fidgeted.

“People change—“

“No, they don’t”

She possessed the information I needed and was going to take her time presenting it.

“He paid attention to me,” she said. “He was kind and I felt sorry for him. He’d been having a lot of regrets about his divorce. His kids don’t want to have anything to do with him. The mother has poisoned the kids against him; she’s brainwashed them even though everyone is well taken care of. Bob was really down, despondent over the bad decisions he’d made, the lifestyle he’d chosen that ultimately left him empty inside.”

“We’re talking about Bob Lane?”

I couldn’t tell whether or not I was seething with anger, inwardly laughing at the absurdity of it, or merely stunned and incredulous. Maybe all three.

“How did it happen? I mean, how did you two arrange things?”

“He showed up at the house one day and invited me out for coffee. It was great. We talked for a couple hours. Bob thinks very highly of you, by the way.”

“Of course he does,” I said, giving her a look.

Gladys shifted in the chair and scratched her stomach.

“Don’t be like that, please—“

“How am I supposed to be?”

“I don’t know . . . anyway, that’s how the whole thing started. He usually took me to his place. Sometimes we’d go to a motel. It lasted from June through October. I broke it off and he totally understood.”

“Then there’s no chance—“

“Of the baby being his? No, none whatsoever.”

The timeline seemed plausible. Bob had left for Mexico before Christmas. Gladys and I had made love New Year’s Eve. If she and Bob had stopped having sex in late October, as Gladys claimed, then Bob Lane’s paternity was out of the question. The timeline came as a bit of a relief. There was no way I would have raised his kid. I had already sacrificed enough for him.

“But if it hadn’t been for Bob,” Gladys continued, “we wouldn’t be having this baby.”

“How so?” I asked her.

“Wanting Bob made me want you all over again. He drove me back into your arms—literally. But it’s always so hard to pull you away from your telescopes, Soren. New Year’s looked perfect. You were out with Frank and Claudia and relaxed from a few drinks, so I seduced you as soon as you got home.”

A spate of not-too-pretty images and ideas were crowding in my head, but one idea persistently nagged above all others and Gladys read my mind: Bob rushing out of the Starlight Tavern the night before Easter.

“I lied about being at my mother’s that night. Bob sounded too alone so I made plans to see him. Believe me, nothing happened, there was no sex. In fact, during our affair there were a number of times that we skipped sex and instead just held each other and talked.”

I couldn’t decide which picture seemed worse: The sex and rush to sex? Or Gladys and Bob cuddling as they opened the sluice floodgates and tearfully mourned their regrets and longings, two lonely hearts conjoined in some sterile hotel room, somewhere.

 

My glass room observatory appeared smaller in scale and less significant after the grandeur of the Empyrean Observatory and its mammoth Cristallinum and Primum Mobile telescopes. I realized I might need some time to feel comfortable working in this room again, though I conceded my becoming a little spoiled on the summit of Blake’s Peak, in the world of “real” astronomers, I still loved my home observatory and my amateur astronomy work. I knew that available time for the glass room observatory was going to be shortened in the coming years, and I struggled internally with that sacrifice—foregoing a longstanding happiness for the sake of a new one. It seemed crazy to think I’d be able to carry on with my life as I’d always done, and Gladys would never allow it while we raised this child.

I hadn’t bothered with my routine of astronomy one I’d gotten home. At least not right away. The work I’d undertaken of following and cataloging multiple star systems (including Burns and Allen, Scorpius-429) had lost momentum, though for a more important reason. Instead, I would spend a random night or two observing Saturn or the Moons of Jupiter—faithful objects that were predictably compelling as the great familiar giants of our solar system. Still haunted by the expectation of twins, I’d made a cursory viewing of the Geminids.

I enjoyed returning to Brainchild Scientific. My co-workers, those I managed, appeared happy to have me back, which I took as a good sign. Amidst the generators and mineral collections, the fossilized insects and optics kits and sextants and star charts, the astrolabes, dinosaur displays and of course telescopes, I would see the jar containing the bird skeleton and Beatrice holding it, see her joy and child-like fascination, and I would feel a fleeting pang all the more remarkable because of everything I’d been through with her since that first moment. I knew I wasn’t going to see Beatrice for some time, but Laura would be my connection to her, and also to Wyatt Edwin or Tatiana once he or she arrived.

I spoke with Laura the second day after returning to the store. She had been out the first day and I asked her whether Beatrice had commented on the trip. Laura told me told she’d heard all about Adam and Eve, the Primum Mobile telescope and Butterfly Nebula, the canyon, magic mushrooms and alien hallucinations. She’d heard the story of the scorpion sting and of a Navajo jewelry maker named Virgil who’d given Beatrice an intricate, magnificently wrought bracelet. And apparently Beatrice said I had treated her pretty well and we’d had fun together. Then Laura abruptly stopped talking, not unusual for her, though I sensed she was keeping something from me. I searched Laura’s face for clues.

“Beatrice is having doubts about keeping the baby,” she said.

Those words cut deep.

“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?”

Laura stared at me.

“Not entirely.”

“Shouldn’t I have a say in her decision?”
“It’s still her decision . . . to get the abortion, terminate the pregnancy . . . it’s her body.”

When I didn’t say anything, Laura added: “I begged her not to.”

“She’ll have the baby,” I said, thinking of how often Beatrice talked about the baby and her pregnancy on our trip, her worry after the scorpion sting. I recalled the smooth ivory mound of her belly with its sash of moonlight, a communion of salt seas and tides in that high dry canyon. There wasn’t anything more sacred on Earth.

“She’ll have the baby,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

 

I drove to and from work each day as if nothing in my life had changed. But in the pale green of early Maple leaves and the white apple blossoms and Magnolia buds, and with the grass tall and slick from recent April rain, I kept recalling the desert and its geometry of shadows. The Chollo and Ocotillo in bloom, Saguarro cactus, but no Maples and no grass except artificial turf in some suburban developments. I could still feel the powdery soil beneath my feet moving across the ground of the reservoir, like the soil of another planet, devoid of things like lawns and meadows, mountain glades, more like Mars or the fictional Arrakis. The Hopi believed they could only inhabit such land in order to carry out the spiritual existence they’d chosen, and the southwest corner of desert states extended farther down through the latitudes into Mesoamerica and the great civilizations whose timeless gods I’d seen leering back at me on the frieze of the Empyrean as if to say: What do you really know in your puny suburban landscape? Your personal problems are trivial. The heavens in which we abide are just as real as yours. . . .

Although I’d greeted Laura’s news of Beatrice’s abortion with surprise, Beatrice had alluded to that subject the last night we were on the road. Too tired to drive further, we’d stopped at a motel in Ohio just across the Indiana border, and after checking in had dinner at a nearby T.G.I. Friday’s. The place had exuded a hyper neurosis that signaled we were definitely back East or getting very close. The patrons had looked either tense and bitchy, or sad and alienated, while our waiter scrambled among the tables because his job depended on it, and when taking our order I’d noticed a rapid tic in his cheekbone. Beatrice had been clearly depressed from lack of sleep and the dreadful ambience of the restaurant and I could read in her face the wish to return to a cantina. She hadn’t eaten anything but instead gulped a few cups of coffee and commenced a stream-of-consciousness litany about death and returning West and hallucinating and her dream and Virgil and Laura and her bracelet and a snippet on not having the baby among other clamoring thoughts. I had eaten a cheeseburger and fries and enjoyed a couple of beers. I’d mostly kept my mouth shut. . . after dinner I’d drifted off to a half sleep in my motel room with the TV still on, something more contemporary and vacuous than Burns and Allen. In my semi-conscious state I had argued violently with Beatrice until, yanking a lamp from the wall, I’d brought it crashing down onto her skull. I’d then donned the coyote mask, or I might have become Egyptian Set, and rolling her inanimate body into the plastic motel shower curtain with a tacky flower print, dropped it into the canyon abyss—a hazy illusion of leaf petal falling as if the canyon had been a weightless space. I’d held the fetus in the palm of my hand, an exact likeness of me, gazing into my eyes with innocent wonder. I’d then bolted upright in bed to the garish images and laugh track of a sitcom, heart racing. A small cry escaped my parched throat. And I immediately recalled two movies I’d seen the previous year: “Alien” and with Kyle, a midnight showing of “Eraserhead.”

“So, who is she then?” Eve Atwater had asked me when I’d told her that Beatrice was neither wife, nor girlfriend, and definitely not my daughter.  Eve had this blunt, direct way of questioning, which made me realize she lacked social boundaries, similar to me at times. Eve did not mince words, and I had been uneasy in her presence as much I had liked her. Her question regarding Beatrice had somehow probed deeper into my psyche as more than a mere statement of relationship. I didn’t know Beatrice any more than I knew myself. I knew that she would be having a child and that I was the child’s father—that was about it.

When the dome of the Empyrean gaped open to the miraculous night sky, it felt as though I was rising into Heaven, that I was as close as I would ever come to gaining Heaven while still anchored to this planet. I wanted to ascend like the Australian café’ owner in Beatrice’s dream, a genie wrapped in vortices of campfire smoke. Beatrice had told me of the child I’d thrown away trailed by the falling stars that turned into snowflakes sifting down through the canyon walls, and I remembered that night sitting in my truck with Laura as the snow made a glittering veil around the house and Beatrice stood in the white and silver radiance of her window like a patient saint. . . .

The day we returned she’d asked me to take her directly to her school. “I honestly don’t know if it’s good to be home or not,” she’d said. “I’m ambivalent.” And at the time I’d questioned my ambivalence too. In the moment I’d sensed a finality and deep loss that was sickening at the end of our great adventure, and as Beatrice angled her body toward the door, studying me, thinking of what to say, the scene reminded of a father dropping off his daughter at high school, though in the real world the daughter would have given her father a peck on the check and then hurry off to be with her friends. That was years away for me, but a second or two later, as if reading my mind, Beatrice had leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

“I don’t want to get into a corny goodbye,” she’d said. “I will have this baby and you can see her—or him—whenever. Everything’s going to be fine.”

End of Part II

Virgil

Beatrice and I ate an early dinner during which she persuaded me that we should stop and see Virgil tonight before making the long drive cross country. Beatrice wasn’t overly concerned about being back in her teaching job by Monday; Tuesday or even Wednesday would be good enough. The school could get a sub on short notice. She would call them first thing Monday morning. When I asked Beatrice what made her think Virgil would want to see us, she answered by flashing her wrist with the bracelet—the bright turquoise and dark garnet.

As we drove the desert flared out in a magnificent sunset, a palette that kept adding and removing a spectrum of color, eventually mellowing to a bruise as dusk gathered over the land. We were almost by ourselves, very few cars on the interstate, distant headlights as small as pinpricks, stars that gradually became larger and ended in small yellow disks, like fireflies, because the opposite lanes of the highway were pretty far away. In this high desert the lingering subtle transition from day to night felt sacred and dramatic. Beatrice and I took our leave of this great landscape . . . maybe for good.

We arrived at the roadside stand and trailer around 9:00. A light shone in the trailer but also a blazing campfire about 20 yards in back of the trailer, silhouette patterns jittering against a wall of rock. Virgil stood near the fire and he watched us approach with no reaction, as if he’d been expecting us. He glanced at the silver cuff, his work, on Beatrice’s wrist. A boar’s head had been set up on a rock near the fire. In the shifting firelight the head bore a tusked grimace, a demon snarl, but with layers of meaning as if its totem spirit was being invoked during a peyote ceremony. A few minutes later the porcine face appeared benign, almost comical, and Virgil didn’t seem embarrassed by the strangeness of displaying the boar’s head in our presence.

“It was a bow kill,” he told us. “I made sausage from the meat and paint brushes with the hide. Durable paint brushes.”

“Do you live here?”

“My place is a few miles down the road, but I do a lot of work in the trailer and sometimes if I’m working late I’ll sleep here.”

In the firelight Virgil’s face appeared all planes and angles, chiseled bones dappled with quivering shadow, strands of gray hair braided into the black. He was handsome in a gentle, introverted way, not rugged or glamorous, more like pictures of Jesus I’d remembered from Sunday school books. His truer affect was that of a bottomless vessel and also someone who mirrored you. No discernible ego. In that respect he was something of an anti-Bob Lane.

“I was young, in my teens when they started construction on the first dome, on Dichi zhi d’zil, also known as Blake’s Peak. The Papago tribal elders believed that looking deeper into the heavens was like looking into another aspect or manifestation of God because the land and water and world beneath the land and water were God too. Our God doesn’t live in the sky alone, like some angry old man with a white beard; he resides in all the elements, he’s everywhere and he’s one among other gods. But the elders were fascinated by the revelation that they could see thousands more stars with these instruments and that the night sky was greater than what they were able to see with the naked eye. It was a powerful revelation for them. And the scientists, the astronomers with their telescopes or ‘long eyes’, weren’t violent or warring and they would not pollute sacred land for the sake of some stupid commercial development or tourist attraction. The idea of an observatory was good for all men though certain conditions would have to be agreed upon and the history and sacredness of Dichi zhi d’zil respected and honored through education and cultural exchange.  Unlike so much Indian land, our history would remain a presence, would not be erased or obliterated. At the time I thought the elders were being a little silly, but that was mostly due to my being “modern” and “Americanized.” I don’t see them that way anymore.

“I’d been attending a private secondary school off the reservation, but I’d visited the mountain a number of times as a boy and was totally inspired by the news about an observatory. I was at the private school because of my academic talent and I had a white sponsor named Mrs. Shaw. I excelled in math, physics and the sciences overall, and was on track to receive a scholarship to the University of Arizona when I became a senior. So when the observatory construction got underway, I volunteered to help out—digging, hauling, bringing coffee—you name it, whatever the project leaders asked me to do. The first mirror was the 16-inch, reflector—small, by comparison to what came after—but once Dr. McEvoy had let me use that scope I was hooked from that point onward. I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I’m forever indebted to McEvoy for giving me that opportunity. I believe he saw something in me and wanted to introduce me to astronomy and all its possibilities, nurture me as a budding astronomer. In college I worked summers and winter break as an intern at the Empyrean. Winter was an ideal time. And after graduating college I assisted as a graduate student and that’s how I knew Adam Greenfield. But I left graduate school and made the decision not to pursue astronomy and physics professionally.”

“What made you stop?” Beatrice asked him.

“I stayed a week or two in the desert ingesting peyote and psilocybin,” Virgil confessed with a self-deprecating laugh. “Not to downplay or trivialize the experience. It was 1968 and during my mind-altering vacation I came to realize that my early love for the stars and planets and meteors, nebulae—all of it—had been tainted or compromised in some way. My revelation was that in the past year at the Empyrean I’d been going through the motions observing stars, poring over catalogs, following coordinates and sequences, and I was losing my passion, the work had grown routine and soulless, and I realized that what I really loved was using my hands, making things. On one of three days I’d hallucinated during that week, I realized I was staring for a long time—maybe a couple hours—at this ring my grandmother had given me years before. The ring wasn’t particularly well-made or significant, but for me it came to possess an intrinsic perfection I could not describe. As soon as I returned from this “vision quest” vacation, I started making jewelry. And I never really quit astronomy. Like you, I’m still an amateur astronomer and I’ve retained quite a lot of knowledge from my time at the observatory and have also learned some new things along the way. I have a couple telescopes in the trailer. I’ll bring them out.”

Beatrice mentioned her scorpion sting and Virgil gave her a complicit smile.

“I’ve been stung over a dozen times,” he said. “Let’s see.”

Beatrice removed her shoe and placed her bare foot on a rock not far from the fire ring, the firelight bronzing her skin. Virgil crouched and studied her ankle.

“That’s a nice dressing.”

“Someone on the Empyrean medical staff,” I said.

He solemnly peeled away the gauze and examined the wound in the same manner in which he’d stared into Beatrice’s eyes a few days earlier, a stare that was blank and pitiless, non-judging, emotionally neutral, somewhat clinical, and yet managed to take in everything that mattered, returning the essence, stripping away the extraneous and unimportant. Virgil’s eye obviously played a big part in the intricate precision and design of his jewelry.

“He got you good. That area by the ankle and Achilles’ tendon is pretty tender unless you go barefoot often.”

“What about my baby?” Beatrice said plaintively.

“Don’t worry about it. The baby will be fine.”

I recalled Beatrice’s ascent to the Empyrean at dawn, her dry and naked ascent, as if her body had been made of cinders. It was still the same day but already felt like a week ago.

Virgil entered his trailer and soon returned with two telescopes.

“We’re going to climb up that ridge,” he said, pointing. “It will take about 15 minutes. The view is perfect from there.”

We walked toward the ridge. I recognized one of the telescopes as a Brainchild Scientific model; the other one was a Schmidt-Cassegrain 9000, not unlike the scope with which I’d discovered Scorpius-429, Burns and Allen. We were soon far enough away from campfire glare, looking down on an expanse as dark as a sea of ink. From the horizon to the zenith the sky was littered with burning embers, and when you pointed the binoculars anywhere those embers multiplied to a dizzying array in the greater depth of field. I became more impressed by Virgil’s knowledge regarding the Main Sequence and Red Shift and also his studies and comments on dark matter, and I kept forgetting that Virgil had logged many hours at the Empyrean and had still kept up with astronomy over the years (we even subscribed to most of the same astronomy magazines). The three of us took turns with the two telescopes and binoculars and we searched for the Butterfly Nebula because Scorpius was just visible on the southern horizon. Behind us the distant flash and shadow of the campfire, but here we stood in the stillness of Heaven, a sea of countless suns, of binaries and distant galaxies. I was with two friends, two kindred spirits, maybe the closest friends I’d ever known, and while I ached to be home, I knew there would never be another moment quite like this one for a long time, if ever.

Our conversation veered to the Native American museum and then Navajo and Pueblo cosmology and then wandered to the giant Radio Array and SETI and the overwhelming statistical probability in favor of life elsewhere in the universe. And while Beatrice had been obsessed about seeing Virgil, and though I was totally enchanted by the time being spent with him, a part of me was anxious to get on the road after the news I’d received from Gladys. I wanted to be home now—the strangest allure and longing for home I’d felt in years. And I was torn because both Gladys and Beatrice now carried a child of mine and they were equally important in my eyes. I wanted to be home with Gladys and here with Beatrice at the same time. I was straddling a fulcrum. I’d never expected

this. . . .

. . . and Beatrice was falling in love again. I could see her unfolding love in the way she behaved toward Virgil, the same way she had behaved toward me on those first crystalline evenings we’d spent together doing astronomy, and to a lesser extent the way she had behaved toward Eve. Maybe it was something about telescopes, but I realized that her perpetually being smitten had more to do with whenever a new person she found attractive walked into her life. I thought I understood Beatrice for the first time, sensing my understanding came from our hallucinogenic night in the pickup truck under the stars and our entire week overall. I believe I’d come to know her better. Her attractiveness fueled and inspired her being attracted to, and that had certainly happened with Laura. For Beatrice, to love and be loved defined her, they were practically one and the same, but it was an indiscriminate love impartial to gender, age or race, and a love that might sometimes invite trouble or pain or misunderstanding. She now paid a great deal of attention to Virgil, and I noticed with a belated compassion and wisdom that any jealousy I had previously harbored was suddenly absent. Beatrice made Virgil the center of her interest—the radiant and passionate center—but Virgil did not seem attracted to Beatrice and wouldn’t reciprocate her attention which only made her efforts all the more obvious and desperate. Virgil treated Beatrice the way he treated everyone—politely, respectfully, as a friend— the very quality Beatrice should have sought in him to begin with. Virgil maintained this Zen-like neutrality in his interactions with people. I’d been told I had some of that trait in me too, another similarity with Virgil. Maybe we were spiritual twins, but I still wanted to leave and get home.

We returned to the campfire. Virgil stoked the fire and then headed into the trailer to make some coffee. I welcomed the coffee because Beatrice and I were going to pull a redeye and the caffeine would help. In silence the three of us watched the fire, mesmerized by the flames dancing from mesquite and pin oak. Though I may have been restless to get on the road, Beatrice stayed rooted to the spot between Virgil and me. I could tell she didn’t want to be anywhere else. Maybe Virgil was my shadow self or I his shadow self. He possessed more attributes of the unconscious side: wild uninhibited western landscapes, darker skin and hair, spiritual and creative elements as manifested in his jewelry work. He would have had to appear on this trip in one form or another, sprung from the clay of my own fears and uncertainty. I would have needed to invent him. He was less self-possessed and rigid than me, and I was already less self-possessed and rigid than I’d been prior to undertaking the Empyrean trip with Beatrice. Virgil might have been living proof of my other untapped possibilities and Beatrice had been the catalyst.

A few minutes before we bade goodbye to Virgil, and as if anticipating our departure, he turned to us and said: “I can tell you’re good people. I want you to know that everything I create and sell carries an ethical weight. Not ethics in the Dualistic/Christian/Western Civilization confusion, nothing as simplistic as black-or-white and either-or—nothing like that. Instead, it’s more like: Why did I make this? Is the thing imbued with a spirit, a sublime energy? My inner vision? What is the piece I make trying to say about me and my people, my ancestors, and what will the piece mean to the person I sell it to, if I decide to sell it to them? How will they appraise and think about the ring, or bracelet, or necklace they just bought? What is value? What is the difference between raw material and intrinsic worth?  Will the buyer realize the centuries that factor into their bracelet? The gods and myths that underpin it? The stories? The sacred minerals and ore from which it emerged? Or is the piece merely something nice to wear? Will the purchase of it stay with the owner throughout their life? And will they pass it down as a family heirloom?  For instance, you might leave that bracelet for your son when he’s a young man.”

 

Later, driving at 2:00 in the morning, I watched Beatrice in the passenger’s seat, her face suspended like a lantern in the window’s dim reflection, lost in thought.

“I could have stayed a lot longer,” she said.

“Where? At the Empyrean? Or with Virgil?”

“Both. . .”

Tired, I allowed her words to seep in.

“You have Laura to go back to,” I reminded her.

Still staring out her window.

“Laura never misses anyone . . . it’s just who she is. You think Gladys misses you?”

“Maybe.”

I hadn’t told Beatrice about the news I’d gotten from Gladys. I wouldn’t tell her.

“But I thought she hated you.”

“She does, but she might still miss me. There’s a weird kind of comfort in hatred once it becomes familiar to you, once it becomes routine. The object of your hatred becomes like a bad habit maybe.”

Beatrice pondered this for a minute or two. The canyons were veiled in moonlight: organ pipes of stone, gaunt and spectral, an ancient place of power and ceremony.

“I don’t ever want to reach that point,” she finally said. “How do you live every day with hatred in your heart or with the knowledge that someone hates you?”

I assumed that because of her age Beatrice didn’t yet understand a long-term relationship dynamic—or one of them. I felt a bit smug.

“Learn to love yourself and make peace with the world. That’s how.”

She turned and stared at me, profoundly skeptical and indulgent.

“Sounds pretty facile, Soren. I’m not letting you off that easily. You can’t truly make peace with the world if hate is hanging around your home. You have to find a way to lose the hatred.”

And oddly, that may have already happened but through no effort of mine. I’d call it divine intervention, if I believed in that sort of thing.

 

 

 

Stung

We must have fallen asleep for a few hours before dawn. I was awakened by the sun and Beatrice was no longer at my side. Her denim cutoffs, tank top, and panties were still in the truck bed, and I realized that I must have slipped my clothes back on because the night temperature had plummeted and I’d been freezing, even inside my down sleeping bag. Although it wasn’t long past dawn, the sun was already warm for mid-April. The psychedelic mushrooms had mostly worn off and I felt cleansed being in the desert at the break of day after a crazy yet elegiac night . . . but where had Beatrice gone?

 
And then I saw her, some hundred yards away, scaling the lower canyon wall, free climbing. I knew that Beatrice liked to shed her clothes; I’d seen her do it before but never outdoors and in the desert. It was as if she were making her body a microcosm of the desert, shorn of clothing the way the landscape she now embraced was stripped of all but its spring flora; the color, texture and line of her taut glowing flesh absorbed in the bosky backdrop that enfolded her like a lion’s hide. The movement of her limbs appeared more animated and lithe against the solidity of the landscape. Her reddish-gold-brown hair poured down the middle of her back and fanned several inches above the whiteness of her buttocks. After last night I loved her more than ever. Before this morning I would have viewed her as Salome’ but in the moment I simply noted her nudity, admiring every natural step she made on the talus and scree. Above and in the distance the domes of the Empyrean Observatory were studded on the crown of Blake’s Peak, pillboxes glaring white. I ran over to the base of the canyon wall and stood beneath the crevices and outcroppings.

“There are rattlesnakes,” I shouted.

“I’ll be careful,” she hollered back, scaling a steeper ascent.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To the observatory.”

“But that’s an altitude of 12,000 feet!”

“So?”

“I can’t imagine you doing the last thousand. Really. It’s almost a sheer vertical drop.”

“I’m a climber. I love to climb.”

“You’ll embarrass me.”

She laughed. Caroming echoes.

“You’ll lose the baby.”

“No I won’t”

After 15 weeks Beatrice pretty much had the same body except the gradual mound of her belly, like a lenticular galaxy viewed on edge, like Centaur-A NGC-5128. The easy elastic curve of her stomach, last night and this morning, enhanced her allure . . . the bright Empyrean buildings above us . . . Beatrice in profile, knee and lower thigh pressed against obsidian, fingers jammed in a dihedral, the vulnerable slope of her belly . . . I envisioned a 1950s Science Fiction B-movie and expected any moment to see an irradiated mutation of a giant ant or tarantula crawl over the peak of the observatory and descend upon Beatrice, threatening to pin her in mandibles and enormous lacquered fangs. She still looked safe, though, in her sun-heated flesh, and now having climbed as high as she dared to climb, was making her way back to the ground and to me.

And then she screamed. She stumbled and skipped backwards, one hand clutching the ankle and calf of her left leg, lifting it off the ground and jumping on the good leg. I ran towards her but stopped a few feet short of the scorpion, still advancing, its contorted thorax reared for another strike, curled symmetrical pincers, tail an enormous crimped comma terminating in a barb. I grabbed a semi-petrified stick of Pin Oak, and holding one end of it like a tomahawk or boomerang, flung it at the scorpion, a good strike, not enough to kill or maim but enough to send it scurrying away, etching its trail of retreat in the coarse sand.

“Oh my God! Crazy pain!”

“Let’s see . . .”

A small red circle, like the image of the sun on the Japanese flag, swelled on the lower side of her right leg near the Achilles tendon.

“Soren!”

“Please stay calm. Relax. I’ll get you treatment right away. If you panic it will only increase your heart rate and the venom will spread faster.”

Fortunately, the cooler in the bed of the pickup still had a small amount of ice, and I had Beatrice hold the melting ice on her sting area to numb it. I then draped her arm over my shoulder and we hobbled together, as if she were war wounded, back to the pickup and I helped her dress, putting on jeans and my white T-shirt instead of the cutoffs. I made her raise her leg and prop it on the cooler and sleeping bags before I jumped in the driver’s seat. She never groaned or winced, but her look told me I should hurry. I floored the truck up the mountainside on those patches of road where the curves were not too treacherous. We checked in at the Empyrean and security notified the infirmary immediately. I was told that Adam and Eve had already left. As we waited for someone to bring a gurney, I could feel the labored inflation of her small light rib cage and remembered the bird skeleton she’d stared at on a day that seemed much longer than half a year ago.

“Is it a bark scorpion?” the medic asked us. “They’re more toxic.”

“Do you think it’s a bark scorpion?”

He shrugged. “No way of knowing unless you bring it in.”

The medic examined the sting closely while applying ice and a tiny bit of hydrocortisone. Beatrice had already swallowed the acetaminophen.

“The pain is not as bad,” she said, “but it’s still pretty bad and there’s a tingling sensation. A lot of tingling going on.”

The medic continued to apply cold pressure. He studied the wound between applications of ice.
“That’s normal . . . . Move like a butterfly, sting like a scorpion,” he said, paraphrasing Muhammed Ali.

“I’m pregnant,” Beatrice said.

The medic looked at her, his face neutral and bland but not hostile. He wore gold rimmed glasses and had the beginnings of a red beard, like a loose nest of rust.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “It’s an hour’s drive to the hospital. If we keep you for several hours, under watch, keep you here for the rest of the morning, you and your baby should be fine. The wound is already subsiding, there are no muscle spasms or evidence of neurotoxicity and you’re healthy. I don’t think you or the fetus is in any danger. Let’s keep an eye on it, monitor your pulse and blood pressure and continue with the icing, maybe a little more acetaminophen. If you continue to improve, we can probably let you go by noon.”

Beatrice turned to me and then to the medic.

“Okay, I don’t want to risk anything. Let’s stay here.”

We decided that I would wait while they kept Beatrice in the infirmary. There didn’t seem to be much point in driving to the Caritas Motel for a couple hours and then driving back. The staff had also made an emergency call to bring an MD on site and check out Beatrice. I mostly stayed by her bedside, reading National Geographic magazine. There was an article about the new Space Shuttle and a launch planned for April 1981, one year from now. Beatrice wasn’t given a sedative or pain killer because of the pregnancy, but she’d been up all night and the previous two nights with little rest, and presently, after the shock and pain of the scorpion sting and the accompanying adrenalin surge, she fell into a deep sleep. Before drifting off, she mentioned something about us having to stop and see Virgil on our way home, but I’d mistaken her comment for a mildly delirious utterance because of the shock.

I walked to the observatory cafeteria for some breakfast, but feeling drained and off kilter from the psilocybin mushrooms I discovered I wasn’t all that hungry. It was still early morning, about 8:30. I had grapefruit juice, coffee, and a sweet roll. I knew that in a few more hours I would be starving but this light fare seemed good enough at the moment. I thought that because of the Empyrean Observatory with Beatrice and particularly last night, that she would not cut me out or deny me access to our baby. I felt it acutely as I was sitting by her on the infirmary bed, holding her hand, and I also felt it when we tossed out a string of baby names while lying in the back of the pickup, stoned out of our gourds and gazing at the constellations. I believed her earlier position and attitude toward me had softened, and I was certain I would be more involved in the life of this coming boy or girl . . . the morning dragged on. My sense of hearing became especially sharp. I could hear everything, and with this ringing hollowness in my mind and deep pit in my body and soul, I felt I was a Buddhist vessel for all the pain and sadness and suffering in the world. I returned to Beatrice’s room. She was now awake and I’d brought her some orange juice from the cafeteria. Her earlier free-spirited aplomb had been replaced by a worried expression but I think we both felt certain that the fetus was okay, that the baby would be fine as she was fond of saying. We made small talk while waiting for the infirmary to release her. Occasionally she touched my hand.

The doctor had not found anything wrong from the scorpion sting and the welt was nearly gone. They released Beatrice released around 11:30. We drove back to the Caritas Motel, but instead of entering her own room she followed me into my room and instantly plopped on the bed and fell fast asleep, her aura tracing the length of her spine and lovely body clad in blue jeans and my white T-shirt, her Botticelli face aglow in the film noir grid of light and shadow that fell through the cheap motel blinds. It was a pitiable room in a pitiable lodging ironically named the Caritas, the kind of room a travelling salesman may have stayed at in a bygone era. I sat in a mildewed stuffed chair next to a small laminated table and reading lamp and watched Beatrice sleep. I lost track of time. A previous occupant of this room had taken the Gideon Bible from its bedside drawer and left it on the table next to me. I placed the bible on my lap and opened it to a verse in the Book of Job.

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, Or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth a constellation in its season, And guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, Or fix their rule over the earth?

I became aware of noises, a cacophony of all the sounds of existence: a baby wailing in one of the rooms; a blaring of Saturday morning cartoons in the same room or a different one; a couple arguing, shouting and slamming doors, shattered glass; kids yelling in the blaring cartoon room and a man in a neighboring room pounding his fist on the wall for them to shut up and turn the noise down; another couple making love, a different kind of pounding on the wall mingled with moans and “yes” and rising excitement and more “yes, yes”; a loud midday news cast overlaid with the wheezing and hacking of an elderly man with emphysema and a portable oxygen tank. I could not clearly separate or single out an individual sound; they all mashed and bled into each other. Beatrice still slept, oblivious to the cacophony, and I felt as if I were at the Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Telescope sifting through all the background signals in the universe. And I was also hearing the cycle of life in this rundown motel, starting with infancy and then childhood (cartoons, shouts) followed by love and sex which may or may not lead to children, but if so then a parental return to your own childhood vicariously, and then maybe marital discord possibly leading to estrangement and divorce and being alone again at some point (angrily banging your fist on some wall, somewhere), to the final wheezing and hacking of old age and illness. We come into the world alone and leave it alone, and the pathetic wrenching gasp for air behind one of those flaking paint doors carried that same universal aloneness as the unattended screaming baby and even the lovers who may deny aloneness in the act but soon know its grip in the wake of climax and orgasm.

In the midst of the motel din I heard the phone ring. It rang several times. I was delirious and borderline paranoid, suspecting I’d broken some unknown provincial law. Then I thought maybe it was Adam Greenfield calling from the Empyrean to inquire about Beatrice and the scorpion sting . . . to see how Beatrice was doing.

But it was Gladys, my putative wife, her voice a hesitant, far away chirping.

“Where have you been?”

“Mostly at the observatory. I called you Thursday night and left a message on the answering machine. I’ll be leaving late this afternoon.”

I had mostly forgotten Gladys since leaving New Jersey last Monday. Not so much out of willful neglect as much as the variety and richness of new experience I’d encountered traveling with Beatrice to the desert and our nights at the Empyrean and in the canyon. To be honest I often didn’t think of Gladys when I was at home. Though I had wanted to talk with her and had called her once, I took her calling me now as something of an affront, neurotically intrusive, and an inopportune time if ever there was one.

“Be careful driving,” she said.

“Of course.”

We chatted for a minute or two, and I was only half listening to her, until:

“I have some news. I was going to wait and save it but I couldn’t wait. I just found out for certain yesterday.”

“Found out what?”

“We’re going to have a baby!”

I was suddenly caught in a great centrifuge.

Gladys: “Are you okay? You don’t sound excited.”

“Yes, I’m okay,” I said, “but a little stunned. I had no idea . . . I mean, after all the years we tried. I’m not sure what to say.”

“Say you love me,” Gladys said, a slight petulance in her voice. “You sound confused or disoriented.”

“No, just tired. Sorry. I’ve been up late at the observatory every night.”

“Are you happy we’re going to have a baby?”

“Of course I’m happy. I’m thrilled about it.”

“It was New Years,” she reminded me.

“I kind of surmised.”

“You always wanted to be a father. Have a child with a telescope to look through with you.”

“Yes, I did. Well, more than the telescope aspect. I guess my wish is finally coming true,” I said, detecting the false note in my voice. “Thank you so much.”

“I should be thanking you for making me a Mommy.”

“We should thank each other then. Come to think of it, we just did,” I said with a nervous laugh.”

“Come home,” Gladys said.

“Soon . . . I promise.”

While Beatrice slept I left the Caritas and drove to the nearest convenience store to buy a fifth of Jack Daniels. Back at the motel I removed the paper wrapper from one of the glasses they place on a small tray in the bathroom and proceeded to fill it most of the way with bourbon, about six ounces’ worth. My head was swimming with new information and yet paradoxically I felt alert and calm. The whiskey went down easy, half in celebration of my pending dual fatherhood and half to gird my loins for what the future may bring. . . . Gladys was 37 and we’d been married nearly 17 years. She’d already had the amnio test and her doctor had told her she could have the baby. She had wanted to wait until after the amnio test before letting me know, just in case. I tried to process everything happening at once: Beatrice and the coming baby; Gladys and the coming baby; Burns and Allen; nights at the Empyrean; the Butterfly Nebula; Virgil and the bracelet; hallucinating on mushrooms under the natural dome of stars but often seeing them as they’d appeared in the Empyrean Observatory; the alien visitation that Beatrice and I had telepathically imagined with a couple verbal cues; love with Beatrice; the scorpion sting; all the painful sounds of life on this planet sealed in the Caritas Motel; the desert and its peoples and their stories; the heartbreaking solitary view of mesa from atop Blake’s Peak. It was a dizzying vertiginous kaleidoscope of everything and nothing, the world yielding up all her secrets and spreading her legs for me with each second I paused and allowed myself to notice.

“What are you doing?”

Beatrice had gotten up and stood alongside the bed, her face a bit slack and wan, a ‘where am I?’ expression. I’d been so lost in bourbon and random thought that I’d missed her waking up. She saw the glass in my hand and saw the bottle. Her blue and brown eyes widened.

“My God, you’re drinking whiskey! Are you still coming down from the mushrooms?”

I smiled, staring at her.

“It’s 2:00 in the afternoon!” she realized. “We have to be out of here in an hour! I’m going to pack.”

I didn’t say anything. I stood up and approached Beatrice, my whiskey breath a fog of grain spirits that quickly enveloped us both. She was still drowsy and muttered my name, followed by the meekest “no” of resistance I had ever heard. I put my arms around her and kissed her long and hard and then tumbled her down onto the bed, seizing the world.

Night Three — The Butterfly Nebula and Beyond

On our third and last night at the Empyrean we were taken to see the Butterfly Nebula. As mentioned earlier, Adam Greenfield had blocked out between one hour and 90 minutes so Beatrice and I would be able to see the Butterfly as large as it would appear in the Empyrean complex. We walked toward the giant Primum Mobile telescope, through a maze of gleaming corridors, a kind of faux NASA, and I was reminded of the interior of the lunar spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey as it headed for Clavius Base and the monolith. I could tell we were climbing—three, maybe four stories. I wasn’t ready for what would come next.

After passing through a checkpoint we entered and made our way through a warren of data collection rooms and sleeping quarters, like a self-sustaining geodesic dome. We reached the observation room and I felt as if I had died for a split second. Adam and Eve had fixed the coordinates beforehand without telling us! The Butterfly Nebula was already there, an incandescent specter, an eyeless face being rent apart. What was it trying to show me the way it hovered there? I recalled a whimsical and yet genius Klee painting, “Letter Ghost,” that I had seen once in New York City years ago, and the memory of that painting had lain dormant until now. . . . It was a fastened cleft in the cosmic fabric that if drawn downward reminded me of two masts on a great schooner in space with the cleft becoming the mainsail spar that joined them. In what vague naval history textbook had I seen something like it? No, frankly there was nothing like it, and all the later renderings of Hubble in the 1990s and 2000, the dizzying colors and visions such as the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula, would never ultimately move me to the extent of the Butterfly.  It was far more than a “bug” (another, earlier name for the nebula); it was a Monarch nurtured on collapsed planetary milkweed. Another southern hemisphere phenomenon, but riding the verge in the whip of Scorpius, it was there for you to seize and ponder. But why so unique? Why so one-of-a-kind? Why did it seem to be the most astounding image of all time and yet something altogether ordinary, not only a butterfly with identifiable wings and thorax (because we are charmed by butterflies), but rather a seamstress’s torso flipped sideways, and like all the female clothing designer sketches, dramatically flared above and below the waste, an evening gown in silk or satin perhaps veiled in a gossamer of tulle for greater flared elegance and effect. It was the fabric of Heaven, sheer as ectoplasm, a bowtie of smoke, a mash of streaky vapors. I thought of the butterflies pinned on a foam board a couple thousand miles from here at the Brainchild store, and in our immense field of view this butterfly was also fixed and trapped in a colossal lens when in reality the contents of this thing were moving at speeds unimaginable to us so that we had no true sense of those swirling gases, that gaseous clash and melee’ of roiling.

I was also reminded of binoculars and bird (or butterfly) watching and how the binoculars were perfectly bifurcated and symmetrical. So, was I looking at the butterfly? Or was the butterfly looking back at me (a variation on the ancient tale of Chang Tzu). Who was the dreamer? Chang Tzu? Or the butterfly?

“Vladimir Nabokov studied butterflies his entire life,” Adam Greenfield said, informing, reverent. “He even advanced a theory on blue butterflies. He was a thorough scientist, a lepidopterist, as well as a great novelist . . . he only died three years ago . . . and, if I can remember this quote correctly: ‘I confess I do not believe in time,’ and then something about ‘the highest enjoyment of time-lessness—in a landscape at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies . . .’ and something about ‘a sense of oneness with sun and stone’ . . . not unlike what we’ve been doing in the Empyrean these past few nights.”

“It was Virgil’s favorite too,” Eve said.

Beatrice looked intrigued.

“Like Soren. Soren and Virgil are alike in some ways.”

“Visionaries, maybe. Intuitive, certainly,” Adam suggested.

I was a little taken aback that they were talking about me as if I weren’t in the room. And I disagreed with Adam . . . at first.

“I’ve never observed that way, at least not consciously,” I said, but I then recalled that before I’d discovered Scorpius-429 I’d received a couple of visions, one of them just an hour or two before the discovery. I recalled my vision of Beatrice holding our child in the corner of the home observatory, the glass room, and I also remembered the first time I’d seen her at Brainchild Scientific, my celestial Muse, and the later fantasy that evening of seeing Beatrice seated by an imaginary hearth fire. It seemed that Beatrice may have been on the margins of my consciousness all along and I had only to tease her out, bring her into the light. Perhaps the same thing would have worked with another woman because at that particular moment I was ready for someone else to come into my life. It was all in the timing.

We stayed for nearly an hour and never stopped talking except for those cathedral-like moments when the four of us simply stood and stared with something close to divine awe and reverence.

“Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here,” Adam finally said. “We will need to vacate. The Danes are coming.”

“The Great Danes?” Eve asked.

“Right. Ethelred. Niels Bohr, Hans Anderson, Hamlet and Kierkegaard among others.  We’re heading out to take a tour of some of the smaller scopes before returning to the Cristallinum.

We engaged in a series of small, inconsequential viewings after our visit to the Primum Mobile. Understandably, we talked a great deal more with Adam and Eve than we had on the first night because they’d opened up to us and we felt more comfortable around them. We took a couple breaks together in the cafeteria. We watched the Hyades in Taurus. We looked at Vega, the blue giant star in the constellation Lyra. But Adam Greenfield had been right: it was all downhill after the Butterfly Nebula. We eventually discussed the astronomy practices and cosmology of the native tribes. Pueblos Indians, the Asanazi, were the first to settle in the American Southwest. They were the Hopi and Zuni tribes. They were agrarian and followed the cycles of the sun and the patterns and types of clouds as guidance in planting and harvesting. Their principal crop was maize. The later Navajo were herdsmen herded and didn’t need to rely on the annual solar cycle for their sustenance. Instead, they paid closer attention to the night sky.

“The Navajo had approximately 36 constellations,” Adam said, “and used a star-based calendar. Most celestial objects and constellations were gods, divinities. For instance, the Na’hookoos—‘the Male and Female Ones Who Revolve’—represented a married couple: Na’hookoos bika’ii, the Big Dipper and Na’hookoos ba’aadii that moved in a circle around the North Star, Polaris. Because of your finding in Scorpius and also because of the Butterfly Nebula you will be pleased to know that another Navajo constellation deity, Gah heet’e’ii, or ‘Rabbit Tracks’ makes up the tail of Scorpius. It is separate from A’tse’etsoh, the larger body or front of Scorpius, of course where the giant red star we know as Antares lives. Gah heet’e’ii is male gender and associated with old age. He carries a walking stick and eats the rabbit tracks which we see as the winding tail.”

At the end of our visit Adam opened a bottle of champagne and decanted out toast into paper cups. He raised his cup and said, a bit pompously: “Without the work of amateur astronomers like you, Mr. Hale, we would have never come as far as we have. If you think about it, Galileo and Tycho were amateurs by modern standards and look at what they accomplished!”

I expressed a wish to come back and visit again, perhaps in a year or two.

“I’ll still be here,” Adam said, “but Eve will be moving on—to Mount Wilson and Palomar to work with the telescope of your namesake, Hale.” He sighed unconvincingly. “Most likely I’ll be doing less research and more administrative work until someone takes Eve’s place . . . but who can take her place, really. I’m primarily the mouthpiece for the observatory but Eve has been the genius behind our published studies on Cepheid Variables. Mount Wilson will be lucky to have her.” Adam raised his cup to Eve. “She’s an asset to any observatory . . . anywhere.”

Eve’s expression had hardly changed but for a glinting pulse in her eye, not unlike a Cepheid Variable.

“Enough of the pieties, Adam” she said with a polite indulgent smile, and then turning to us, “It was a pleasure having you here. Say hi to Virgil for me.”

*

Beatrice and I left the Empyrean around12:30 AM and drove to the reservoir to ingest the psilocybin mushrooms and hopefully stay awake until dawn. We would then return to the Caritas Motel, catch a few hours’ sleep and leave by mid-afternoon for our long drive back to New Jersey. Even before taking anything my head still reeled from the incredible heart-stopping array of pictures we had witnessed these past few nights at the Empyrean Observatory. At the reservoir we parked the pickup on a bluff overlooking the water and picnic area, and after briefly walking about, we climbed into the back of the pickup and sat on the truck bed with a couple of sleeping bags, a flashlight, and some cheese, fruit and wine. We sat under a “normal” sky with ten thousand candles that Beatrice judged to be anti-climactic but nonetheless miraculous because there were no special effects.  The night was as clear as a Fresnel lens. A gritty southwest wind swept across our hair and faces.

“Are you ready?”

Beatrice handed me the mushrooms mixed in a kind of sweetened paste, but they still tasted dry and slightly bitter and I chased the mushroom mixture with red wine. We’d uncorked the Cabernet to enjoy with our jack cheese, tortilla, oranges and papaya. We were suspended in time between the blessed Empyrean, the desert, and the long drive east, and we were free to lose ourselves in this time to do whatever came our way until later on Saturday when we started for home. I could not remember having ever felt this much freedom, but I was also aware of a nagging apprehension about resuming that other life: Brainchild Scientific, Gladys, the glass room observatory and sanctuary, my telescopes, the contemplative drive to and from work across the semi-rural western Jersey landscape. Before Beatrice and our journey to the Empyrean, I’d been living a half-life all these years since the Navy. What had I been denying myself? And why had I so readily fled the loving arms of a Carol or a Pilar when they’d been trying to tell me something important, or at least instructive? I might have at least tried more kindness with Gladys, though deciding to end our marriage might be the greatest kindness of all. I questioned the history of mute rancor and loathing I’d displayed toward her as the solution to an unmanageable co-habitation. Ignoring Gladys had been the abuse of choice because it didn’t leave any bruises or marks and would not attract the suspicion of neighbors or the intervention of law enforcement. Ignoring the person you lived with was your own emotional restraining order.

We shared the wine, and as the mushrooms began to take effect, Beatrice told me a few details about her childhood: the working class Catholic family in Passaic County (an industrial wasteland where many died young from a smorgasbord of cancers), her three younger siblings, the father who’d beaten her, one time breaking her nose and another time throwing her down a flight of stairs, but not, unfortunately, when she’d been pregnant in high school. Her confession came as an unexpected shock until I recalled the detail she’d divulged about her mother and watching the stars down at the seashore. It was easy to understand, then, that Beatrice’s later choice of lifestyle with Laura would cause estrangement from her family although her younger brother and one sister still maintained contact. Her zealous youngest sister, following the rigid Roman Catholic dogma and censure of her parents, had severed all ties. In kind I talked about my dead parents and the brother I never saw who worked at the New York Stock Exchange. We were worlds apart. I confessed to Beatrice my desire to have a family or be part of a family. While Gladys and I would, by definition, be classified as a family in U.S. Census terms, I didn’t feel that we were a family. I told Beatrice I regretted not having family in my life.

“Have you picked out a name for the baby yet?” I asked her

“Tatiana or Sarah, if it’s a girl.”

“Boy name?”

“Not sure. Maybe Noah. Or Nicholas.”

“Noah?” I echoed with a quick laugh.

“What would you pick, then?

We proceeded through a long list of boy names. It became comical at times—Osgood, Napoleon, Ignatius, Biff, Aloysius, Vito, Abner, Orville, Soren. . .

We were rolling with laughter in the bed of the pickup.

“Wyatt?”

“Like Wyatt Earp,” I said in jest.

“No, seriously, it’s a lovely name.”

I had to agree. Later I would lobby to have the middle name be “Edwin,” after Edwin Hubble.

“I’ll be getting a sonogram as soon as we get back. I’ll let you know the sex.”

“Thank you.”

“Look!” she said, pointing upwards. “They’re moving, see?”

“They’re always moving and we’re always moving.”

She placed her hand on my leg, tapered fingers making a light pressure, secure, resting. I said, “I’m seeing more stars than normal. Maybe it’s the aftereffect of the dramatic images from the Cristallinum and Primum Mobile telescopes.”

Beatrice tittered. “That’s the mushrooms, Soren.”

Silent, we watched the night sky for a long time. Above us on Blake’s Peak the Empyrean domes gleamed in the darkness as if they were white spaceships recently landed, solitary and foreboding but with no signs of life in them, no sign of life anywhere in the desert darkness except for Beatrice and me.

“Who are we, Soren? Why are we here?”

Hallucinations. The sky a cascade of sparkles, streaking trajectories or meteors and other flaming orbs. After the astounding visions of the Empyrean and the present absorption of psychotropic drugs, the night appeared to me more like a fireworks display—blazing, explosive, kinetic . . . a spaceship, alien craft from the Auriga-7 system, landed on the far side of the lake. The ship hatch hissed open and a chorus line of aliens emerged clad in chrome and Mylar spandex suits that made them look like silver speed skaters. The aliens instantly glided onto the reservoir lake, as though they were skating on water, and then stopped in the center of the lake. Several more skaters emerged from the spaceship and gathered with the others. There were between 25 and 30 of them, and they commenced a type of ritual dance, joining their crustacean appendages as they circled clockwise and then counter-clockwise along with choreographed movements reminiscent of synchronized swimming. Their silver bodies and limbs stretched to absurd elastic lengths in order to widen the circle until it encompassed the circumference of the lake. And the circle ultimately encompassed us too and the aliens became no more than glowing chartreuse will ‘o the wisps, encircling us in their harmonious light until the light rose and hovered over our heads like some celestial halo and then slowly drifted back into the ship and all of it vanished.

I described my vision or hallucination (was there a difference?) to Beatrice. She had seen something similar, but in her version we simply entered the aliens and weren’t eaten or cannibalized. Instead our spirits were subsumed into their ‘being’ leaving our bodies as two maize husks on the reservoir lake shore. I thought Beatrice’s version more metaphysical than the sacred dance I had dreamt and undoubtedly linked to her pregnancy, the dweller inside. I became one with her fetus, a miniscule almond immersed in a grotto that over time I would fill to bursting and then slither and slide through a wormhole into this other, questionable, reality. Every living thing was born and died, and my recognition of that somewhat facile and obvious truth caused me to burst out laughing.

“What is it?”

“Living and dying . . .”

“Yes?”

“Yes . . . all of it . . . nothing . . . just words. . . .”

Poised and serene, Beatrice replied with a nod of her head. She carried our child and I experienced a religious awakening in her presence and questions around parental “roles” became suddenly less important, reduced to a possibly more sane perspective. Somehow it would all turn out fine.

I asked her: “I know this is a silly question but if you had to pick a favorite stellar object out of everything we’d seen, what would it be?”

“The Butterfly Nebula,” she answered without hesitation. I felt an unexpected tightness settle in my throat. I gazed up into the canyon of stars, into the depths of the universe, and saw the miraculous span of the Butterfly Nebula as large as it had appeared when viewed through the Primum Mobile telescope. It stayed fixed on the night sky like an eidetic image, buoyant, a vast sail forever expanding and billowing, floating away and then gradually returning. It wasn’t an hallucination; the earlier retinal image had been etched into my cortex and re-projected onto the night sky like in popularized sightings of ghosts. Other famous nebulae soon came into view around the Butterfly: the Orion, the Veil, the Mist, the Horsehead, the Eagle, the Crab, I heard the old Western ballad, “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” spiraling in my ear until its solemn words and music sifted through me, became my own private ectoplasm.

“It is fantastic!”

“Yes . . . yes, it is. . . .”

I saw her face before me so imbued
With holy fire, her eyes so bright with bliss . . .

and through that living light I saw revealed
The Radiant Substance blazing forth so bright
My vision dazzled and my senses reeled.

Beatrice’s hand still rested on my leg. We kissed, our mouths fused with the desert spring air, a longer kiss than on Christmas Eve, or so it seemed. I became acutely conscious of the ridiculous nature of time. It might have been several seconds, or several minutes, or several hours from the point at which our fingers had joined in a crude lattice to the present point of us both naked with those same fingers exploring and caressing the humming flesh of one another. It really didn’t matter. We weren’t quite sure what we were doing and that also didn’t seem to matter. I was on the verge of losing consciousness. Beatrice straddled my hips and thighs, the soft distention of her belly like a waxing moon, a glistening hummock alongside the jeweled gleaming cuff on her wrist. What exactly was it about her that made me so desperate and crazy to make love to her? Our true relationship had been perfect from the start, and in our single sexual act we’d conceived a child that would link us in ways I would have never imagined had we only ended up fucking a few times or engaged in a short-lived affair like the one I’d had with Carol Erskine. No comparison. We were laughing so hard that we began to lose focus. I kept envisioning the friendly, almost paternalistic face of Adam Greenfield accompanied by a swell of gratitude and also a pang that I would probably not be seeing him for some time and Eve maybe never again. I recalled Adam’s belated praise of his partner and intuited that maybe he’d not been as unethical or callous as Beatrice had portrayed him, but that he’d been more remiss, absent-minded, and perhaps less socially adroit when it came to working with women. I might have had some of that in me, too, though I didn’t see it with Laura and some of the other women I worked with.

Beatrice and I whispered and laughed in a cold stellar vacuum though there was no reason for us to whisper. The night’s stillness was a gross deception. Matter was forever exploding and changing all around us. I saw the great burst and swirl of all celestial objects in the canyon of darkness. I saw kachinas dancing in the heavens, the sharp angular joints of their red and silver limbs twitching benignly, and their faces smiling as they interceded with the gods for our protection and the birth of our blessed child.