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

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

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

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

 

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In the fall of 1980 PBS Television ran the mini-series, “Cosmos” with Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan. Overnight, Brainchild Scientific was busier than it had ever been in the 18 years since I’d started working there. Telescope orders were pouring in, and a great number of people—would-be astronomers and their families—walked the floor and asked myriad questions about astronomy and telescopes. The show’s popularity was undeniable, and I tried following it at home whenever I had a free minute. Gladys and I were so busy with Ramona that couldn’t always catch an episode of “Cosmos” between diaper changes, cleaning, and foraging. My ecstatic mood over “Cosmos” caused a minor conflict on the domestic front.

“But you know all this stuff,” Gladys protested. “and it’s somewhat dumbed down or certainly below your level of knowledge.”

She was right, but the beauty and excitement of the show for me was that popular culture had seized upon astronomy. Astronomy, thanks to Carl Sagan, had become cool and fun, and Sagan was a master popularizer. He put his erudition and passion on display without talking to his audience. In the style of the best science teachers, professors and popularizers through the ages, Sagan dreamed and imagined and made the audience dream along with him. He deftly and creatively narrated the history of Astronomy and the great figures and discoveries (Galileo, Tycho, Copernicus, Hershel, Einstein, etc.) and in spite of the distance we’d come in our understanding of the heavens, he reminded us that we were still more or less in the infancy of our knowledge. Gladys was right about my already knowing a lot of the nuts and bolts, but the show had offered validation of my love of astronomy and the business of making and selling telescopes. With “Cosmos” I lived another birth in my soul to enhance the births of my daughter and son.

But I was so busy with the store and parenting, that I sometimes fell asleep in the armchair before an episode of “Cosmos” had ended, and I was reminded of the “life stuff” which can and does interfere with major astronomical events. I recalled that 11 years earlier I’d gone through a similar period of attention deficit, during the first moon landing though for an entirely different reason. Back then I’d been doing a few drugs, hanging out with college kids and having sex with co-eds. While my mind back then had been elsewhere, in the present my focus was on being a father and everything it entailed. Yet these two astronomy events weren’t really in the same league. Apollo 11—the first moon landing—was historically huge, monumental, “a giant leap for Mankind. . .” whereas “Cosmos” was still, at bottom, an entertainment and marketing juggernaut. What they shared was a moment in time when the stars and space exploration loomed large in the public imagination, and while I had spent most of my adult life engaged in amateur astronomy and telescopes, I found myself disconnected during these larger collective events. During the big events I’d been tricked into “living.” No small thing. Any look into the heavens takes your gaze away from earth and vice versa, and one can never really be in those two places at the same time. An added irony with Carl Sagan and “Cosmos” was that I’d often been missing the phenomenon while indirectly being in the service of its success.

Fragments

May 10, 2016

The Butterfly Nebula has been on leave, or hiatus, so until there are new chapters to post, I’m filling in with some fiction or memoir scribbling as they occur.  ~seh

 

From a Family Memoir (also a separate blog to be accompanied with photographs).

In his later years he lived with my grandmother on Central Avenue in Ridgefield Park. Their small apartment was behind a store and the only way to reach the apartment was through an alley. My father would take me there for family visits when I was a boy. The alley had a slate walkway flanked by cracked concrete gutters. Sunlight barely penetrated the cavernous alley and it always felt damp and cool back there. There was curled and broken shingle siding splotched with moss. In that period of time—the 1950s and early 1960s—the neighborhood would have been characterized as lower middle class, but my father grew up somewhat closer to poverty. There were years when his sole Christmas gift had been a comic book.

I never saw a street entrance to the place—probably would have been physically impossible. The alley provided a front and back entrance that opened into a tightly crammed mud room packed with junk. We were normally greeted by Ichabod, my grandparents’ beagle mutt who was notorious for his goat-like appetite. The mud room joined the kitchen: an old aluminum-legged table stood immediately on the left as you entered; the Formica counter and sink were on the right and the stove directly ahead. Two doorways led you out of the kitchen: one into a hallway that terminated in a bedroom on one side and a bathroom on the other; the second doorway was to the living room that had only two windows facing the alley. These rooms and a closet or two made up the alley. From what I’d known, my father had lived here for over ten years with his two brothers, his mother and father and a maiden aunt. No wonder he’d left as soon as possible. During the war the number of occupants was reduced by two because my grandfather was away at sea nearly all the time, and my uncle was fighting in Europe for one-to-two years.

What I remember most was a pervasive darkness, particularly in the bedroom and the living room where we sometimes gathered for tea and cookies. The objects in this space, though often difficult to discern and identify, had been brought back from my grandfather’s circumnavigations around the world while commanding ships for the merchant marine. There were paintings in umber lacquered tones badly in need of restoration, Wedgwood trays, exotic silk and ivory fans, tall porcelain vases from the Orient adorned with cherries and peacocks; ebony cabinets, gilt-edged, with bone and pearl inlay; large antique reading lamps; samovars and decanters; hand-blown paper weights; damask with tasseled fringe; a brass genie lamp with a turquoise stone; an ashtray coiled like a serpent with the head of a merchant from Turkey or North Africa, and those were only the objects I was able to see.

On Sunday night at 10:00 the adults watched black and white television shows and the one I recall most was, “What’s my Line?” Everyone from the host, John Daly, to the panelists, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf and Dorothy Kilgallen, were all dressed in formal evening attire with their black eye shades as though attending a masked ball, all quite charming and urbane as though they’d just stepped away momentarily from their columnist or editor’s desks at New York’s grand old newspapers and Random House by way of the Algonquin Hotel and strolled over to CBS studios for the live show to entertain and be entertained by the audience and mystery guests. To play was simple, a variation of “20 questions.” The mystery guest signed in so that only the audience could see who they were and then the blindfolded panelists attempted to guess the person’s occupation or “line” of work. If one of the panelists’ question was correct they received a small amount of money and then continued with their questions, and when their question was incorrect the questioning moved on to the next panelist. There were normal people with normal occupations but each show always had a celebrity guest. Cash prizes didn’t factor heavily into the game; it was more about celebrity and deductive reasoning, which like most problem solving used the left hemisphere of the brain to work through language and reasoning and then the right visual and intuitive hemisphere of the brain to “see” the answer, to see the person beyond the blindfold.

 

PARAGRAPH FROM A SHORT STORY DRAFT

Will was in third grade when they’d adopted Hermes, a four-month-old tuxedo kitten discovered along with his mom and siblings behind a gas station. Originally, the gas station owner had contacted the local ASPCA after his wife and kids shamed him into not drowning the mother and her litter (apparently he wasn’t much of an animal lover) and the family had wound up taking one of the kittens for themselves. The mother and three remaining kittens were then placed in foster care until Shannon adopted Hermes for Will. At the time Will was sad and Shannon believed it would be a good idea to have a new family member to replace the one who’d recently left. She thought the cat would be soft and gentle, loving and affectionate, and not abusive like the one who’d recently left, or the one she’d thrown out before him, neither of whom were Will’s father. Will’s father, Curt, had made his stunning exit one night in a near 100-mile-an-hour burst of speed, stoked up on bourbon and meth, his Harley mating with the rear end of an abruptly careless tractor trailer lurching onto the freeway. Will had turned two a week later.

 

 

 

 

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.”

She fidgeted.

“People change—“

“No, they don’t”

Gladys waited. She possessed the information I needed and she would 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 mistakes he’d made, bad decisions, the lifestyle he’d chosen that ultimately left him empty inside.”

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.

“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 the 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 came 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 room, somewhere.

 

My glass room observatory appeared smaller in scaled 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. While conceding that I may have become a little spoiled on the crown of Blake’s Peak, 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 one happiness for the sake of another. It seemed absurd 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 after the Empyrean Observatory. 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 single 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’d been out the first day. I asked her whether Beatrice had commented on the trip and 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 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, and while that wasn’t unusual for her, I sensed she was keeping other details from me, something new and unexpected, not unlike Gladys telling me of her pregnancy and affair. I searched Laura’s face for clues.

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

I was stung by her words.

“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 simple joy and her fears after the scorpion sting. I recalled the smooth ivory mound of her belly wearing a 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’d immediately remembered 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 had made me realize she lacked social boundaries, not unlike me at times. Eve did not mince words, and I recalled being 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 who Beatrice was, perhaps any more than I knew who I was. I knew that she would be having a child and that I was the child’s father. I wondered if Gladys had in fact lied about the timeline of her affair with Bob Lane, but then I figured I would be able to tell a child of mine from Lane’s any day.

I had mild regret that my parents would not get to enjoy a grandchild, or grandchildren, but they’d been dead for years, and I had taken a long time to reach this point in my life—fatherhood at 40, so you couldn’t blame them for not waiting around. I considered whether or not Beatrice’s excommunication from her family because of her lesbianism would somehow be more openly tolerated once her parents had access to a grandchild. And what about Laura’s parents? I could not recall Laura having ever mentioned a parent—maybe a sibling one or two times. It seemed perfectly likely that Laura may have been a pariah to her family like Beatrice, but I had never heard anything one way or the other and had forgotten to broach that subject with Beatrice during our trip. Grandparents could be a major help and support network but frankly so many families had dispersed to all corners of the country during the mid-to-late 70s that a geographically close extended family may have already become a thing of the past. And geographically close or not, the idea of being an involved grandparent was a personal choice anyway. Look at Gladys’s mother? Would we really be able to expect much from her?

When the dome of the Empyrean gaped open to the miraculous night sky, it felt as though I were 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, to levitate 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 sparkling veil around the house and Beatrice stood in the white and silver radiance of her window like a patient saint. . . .

So where am I now? Where are we all now? Rising or falling? Does it even matter?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

                       


Update on Blog

August 5, 2015

All future posts on The Butterfly Nebula will deal solely with chapters and sections of the novel, The Butterfly Nebula. There will be a new web page for general writing and a new blog at some point yet to be deterimined.

~The Author

*see “Michael and Walt” and “The Wicks”

Lorraine needed a pack of cigarettes. She was down to her last half a pack and didn’t have the money to buy any more. Her check was not due in until Wednesday and today was only Monday. She could maybe borrow half a pack from Cokie. Lorraine still had some food in the house, a few groceries in the fridge and cabinet, and anyway it was too hot to eat much more than a salad. Lorraine had discovered like a soldier in battle that she could go without food easier than she could go without cigarettes. As long as she had some Ritz crackers to nibble on, and maybe a can or two of tuna fish and some Lipton tea she’d be alright. She should give up smoking anyway.

The problem started when Lorraine had to purchase cable, which hurt her budget. Basic cable had been more than Lorraine could afford, but when all analog service ended, she’d been forced to buy a cheap cable service package. She could not afford to buy cigarettes but she had cable. Lorraine watched a lot of QVC and believed she was engaging in a personal dialogue with the ladies who were selling clocks and tiaras. They were her friends. Lorraine didn’t have any place else to go except for driving to the beach and staring at the ocean, and that activity was more enjoyable in the off season than during the crazy summer. She could watch QVC instead of enjoying the beach from her car, or sitting at a picnic table in a small park on the bay, along with families and other seniors near the playground.

Lorraine decided she would visit Cokie and ask for some cigarettes.

“Five OK?” Cokie asked her.

“Yes,” Lorraine said, thinking she would need to spread the five cigarettes out, maybe one every three hours not counting sleep of course.

Cokie was wearing fuzzy slippers and a terry cloth bathrobe, a cigarette burning in her tanned fingers which looked like two cinnamon sticks. Cokie supposedly drank in the evenings and sometimes wandered out of doors, staggering along the street in her robe and slippers. But Lorraine had never seen Cokie drunk or outdoors at night.

“Are you broke?”

“Sort of . . . just waiting for the check to come.”

“I know what you mean. Harry, God bless his soul, left me a small pension, but I’m often strapped early in the month.”

“Walter didn’t have a pension,” Lorraine said. “And I don’t have a pension, and I’ve only worked two years in my entire life, and that isn’t long enough for any decent government social security payment. I live off Walter’s social security and a little savings.”

“I know what you mean,” said Cokie, nodding, flicking an ash with a tap of her index finger. “Why don’t you work now?”

Lorraine had been expecting more sympathy, more commiseration, not this. Cokie’s question caught her off guard.

“You’re kidding,” she said, with a small sardonic laugh. “No one wants to hire an old lady with no experience.”

Cokie shrugged. “Walmart’s is always looking for greeters. Minimum wage but it would keep you in cigarettes and maybe a pizza every now and then. And the stores will need help for Christmas.”

“Now? It’s early September!”

“I know, can you believe it? But they’ll be taking applications within a month. Mark my words.”

Later, as she was sitting home and watching QVC, Lorraine realized that Cokie had struck a nerve. The thought of working terrified her. She felt that trying to find any type of job at the lowest pay imaginable—but possibly enough pay to at least buy her cigarettes and maybe an ice cream at the ice stand when the mood struck—was beyond her ability and experience. Lorraine had never volunteered, especially not as a retiree, when there was perfect opportunity to meet other people, to socialize, to “network” as they called it these days. What had she done? What was she doing now? Why was she afraid to make any kind of change? Or was it simply inertia? Lorraine admitted to herself that she was maybe a little agoraphobic, but not seriously. She enjoyed going out and shopping (when she had the money to shop) and talking to people while shopping. Was she so averse to risk or change that she would rather suffer stoically than attempt to improve the essentials of her circumscribed life? Improve things just a little?

Lorraine thought it would be fine to have a job like one of the ladies on QVC, something elegant and tasteful as opposed to a demeaning low-paying retail job, like working as a greeter at Walmart. After the check came and she was able to buy cigarettes, she took a drive over to Walmart’s to buy them instead of the drugstore. She was trying to kill two birds with one stone. She’d heard that cigarettes were cheaper at Walmart’s anyway and she wanted to get a feeling for the store and possibly ask a manager or assistant manager if they’d begun to hire greeters for the upcoming holiday season.

A mother and son were sitting in a delicatessen bagel shop. The mother drank coffee, and the son, who was about 12 or 13, sipped on a Sprite. Hot morning sunlight glazed the shop windows. The mother had an egg sandwich with sausage and the boy ate a doughnut, and the mother ate a doughnut too. The mother was overweight but not quite obese, and the son, too, was overweight, but also not obese except maybe by a classification of obesity for children. While they weren’t what you would call ‘happy’, they weren’t particularly sad either. They did not seem emotional or passionate and high and low moods rarely made up their respective temperaments.

“So what do we do now?” the son asked his mother.

His mother was more absorbed in her doughnut than short range plans.

“We wait a few hours and then drive over to our new place,” she said.

“But I don’t wanna move there. It stinks. The apartment is nowhere near as big as our house was.”

His mother stared at him, making an effort to be patient.

“Just because something is smaller, it doesn’t always mean that it’s worse.”

“Why can’t we go to the park?”

“No.”

“But why?”

“Because we can’t, that’s why.”

She washed down the squeezed stub of her doughnut with some burnt weak coffee and stared out the window. On the sidewalk a smartly dressed, slender and shapely woman in her late 20s passed by the delicatessen. She wore long graceful high heels that made a clicking rhythm against the cement. It was a hot day in mid-July and yet the young woman, in her makeup, tight skirt and stockings appeared remarkably cool, as if her body held an internal air conditioner . . . the air conditioner in the delicatessen didn’t work very well, and the mother felt runnels of perspiration on the underside of her arms just below her armpits. How could that girl not be sweating?

“I want to go to Game World,” the overweight boy whined.

“I said no.”

“But why?”

“Because we need to get some things at Walmarts before driving to our new place.”

The overweight boy who was not quite obese sighed and sulked.

“I don’t wanna go. Are you listening to me?”

Her sweat increased, freshets dampening her neglected body.

“Oh, you will go or I’ll beat your ass.”

“They’ll call me a pig at the new school. I’ll be teased and bullied.”

“You’re bigger than most of them and you won’t be alone. You’re not that fat. Try out for football. You’d make a good lineman.”

“I’m not going.”

“We’ll be living closer to Aunt Clara and Bobby. About a mile away.”

“I hate Aunt Clara and Bobby!”

Using her pinky finger the mother flattened the few remaining doughnut crumbs and lifted them to her mouth, a tongue the color of clay flicking.

“That’s too bad,” she said to her borderline obese son, “because you’ll be seeing a lot more of them. Probably a couple times a week.”

“I’m not going!”

“Stop arguing about it, please. This conversation is over.”

The boy excused himself to use the restroom, and with a precious minute or so to herself the mother, the woman, felt that she’d been conned or tricked in some vague but universal way having to do with her sex. She might have once been that slender creature who’d passed by earlier, but in truth she’d never been that pretty, more like a younger prettier version of her present self, believing back then she could get anything she wanted, including a husband and a fairly decent life.

*

Another Sketch from “The House of Tomorrow”

It was only after my mother died that I thought more about having a handicapped parent and being raised by a handicapped parent. My mother hadn’t been severely handicapped but enough that I had noticed a difference with other kids’ parents. For instance, when walking with her you needed to slow down and pace yourself to her gait, or stand on a chair to reach something in the cabinet or bend down to retrieve a fallen object if it had rolled into a hard-to-reach spot. You were enjoined to descend the wooden steps to the basement where a few laundry items may have been left, more often to bring back the pack of cigarettes she’d forgotten if there wasn’t a new pack in the house to open. And if at home, be ready to lift her off the floor from the occasional stumble and fall. There was the aforementioned positioning of the dead limb in the driver’s seat of the family car, and at times I would have to move and position the limb for her, or when in the house correctly place the limb on the couch or a hassock when it appeared in danger of sliding off. I slipped socks and shoes on and off her feet, tugging canvas across the chafed skin of her heel, yanking worsted side to side, up or down, and struggling to get it over the protruding fibula of her ankle.

*
Two sketches from the beginning of a short story

Fred Mole’s Saturdays began early, around 5:00 or 5:30, so he could get to his shop or stall at the flea market which opened at 7:00. Fred liked to give himself enough time to have two cups of coffee and two cigarettes before leaving the house. Some weeks he would stop to pick up merchandise from one of his wholesalers. His mother was asleep, and as he was leaving Fred would always step into the shadowed musty bedroom and kiss her on the forehead to say goodbye. Snoring in a thick gin-induced slumber, his mother rarely noticed the kiss, and if she felt the pressure of his lips at all it was filtered through her subconscious until her son’s lips became those of an old lover, or several lovers, all dead now. His mother’s hair sprouted from the crown and sides of her head like tufts of cotton. She’d given birth to him at the age of 30, almost as an afterthought, an advanced age for that time and their class. Fred was 45. His mother’s cheeks were plump but with a complexion like skim milk, even bluish in those places where the veins struggled. Her skin was a kind of living elastic marble.

It was going to be a blistering hot day.

Shannon opened her stall early and arranged the studded jeans and hippie blouses on the rack, the jeans with vents running the length of the seam, a bit suggestive by exposing lozenges of skin, light or dark, maybe a bit slutty or hip depending on your point of view. Shannon was wearing a pair herself and did not feel self-conscious when considering she might be too old (39) for this style of jeans. She was the mother of a 21-year-old soldier stationed in Kuwait. She was thin and proud of her long legs, and if her thighs had been of ample thickness and girth she might have chosen instead to wear a Mumu. Knowing how hot it could get in the stalls she had on a sleeveless white blouse, tightly pleated in front with rainbow colored embroidery in southwest Indian tribal motifs. The blouse was cut a few inches above her tanned navel, crimped with a silver piercing like a small unshelled escargot on a skewer. Shannon used her Bic disposable lighter to light a stick of incense and place it alongside a row of scented massage oils. Her DVD player sat behind the register alongside a batik hanging. Music played low as she sipped a large Dunkin Donuts coffee in anticipation of her first sale, the shimmering harmonies laving over her as she awakened to the morning and possibility.

Guinnevere had golden hair
       Like yours, mi’lady, like yours . . .

Fragment from Family Memoir

December 27, 2014

The following draft was first started at the end of 2009, and there is a lot more writing connected to it but I’m posting this fragment for the time of year.
–SL

It was on Christmas night when I first saw my dead parents. In keeping with my Yuletide ritual of getting quietly drunk, I began to feel expansive with holiday mirth and ventured outside to walk my dog. It had snowed briefly the night before and a mantle of white lay on the houses and cars and streetlamps, on the trees and bushes lit up with Christmas lights. But tonight was clear and brilliant. Orion tilted above me, the stars Almitak, Almilan and Mintaka — the Hunter’s belt stars — evenly spaced apart. The air had a bite when you drew it deeply into your lungs, frosting the nose hairs. My dog and I were the only souls on the street. I wanted to reach out and touch the heavens. I thought of other galaxies. I thought of other stars.

But when I re-entered my house I was immediately consumed by the smell of boiling tongue. A big cow’s tongue boiling in one large iron pot and skinned potatoes boiling in another; a pale gray scum frothing on the surface of both pots like a head on cheap beer. As a boy, on cold winter evenings, I had nearly always entered the house at Wayward Avenue through the back door which faced Larchmont Avenue and which led into our kitchen, coming in maybe after a snowball fight or skating in the woods or delivering the evening newspaper, coming into warmth and into a cloud of steam that smelled of salty meat and starchy potatoes, the cloud moving against a thicker, more tar-toxic one of cigarette smoke, as if the clouds were colliding fronts roiling in their fused and respective densities. And my parents emerged like apparitions from this acrid pall of vapors swathed in nicotine; my parents were there suddenly, seated or moving about in the cramped kitchen. They were real and this was the heart of the home.

Welcome . . . .

The rancid odors were so solid, so literally in your face and earthy (we were all Taurus’s in my family), that some of my friends would become nauseous upon entering the house and we’d then have to leave and head back into frigid January darkness to resuscitate our sinuses. I barely noticed the odors back then, though I now recoil in horror from this scene a half century later. I could tolerate the smell, and was maybe a little queasy at the sight of tongue, but I could not stand the taste of tongue and boiled potatoes. I lathered the tongue with copious amounts of Gulden’s brown mustard and attempted to melt frozen chips of butter on the grayish white boiled potatoes. Even then I would often gag and commence a filibuster in hopes of having my plate removed. With my knife I had to trim the rind of taste buds from the tongue meat.

I was momentarily pulled back into 2009. The time was 8:41. 8:41 appeared on the stove clock and the Cable TV receiver. I saw 8:41 on my alarm clock and my cell phone, on my PC and microwave oven, any appliance that haunted you with digital time in bright red, amber or yellow-green numbers. The street address of the house I grew up in — the house of the boiling tongue and boiling potatoes — was 841 Wayward Avenue. And somehow the minute became eternal.

Welcome to Our World. . . .

An early morning in January. My parents are in the pitch dark kitchen with no breakfast cooking at first, just the bitter smell of coffee and cigarettes. Their cigarette ends are glowing coals, signals from opposite shores, one if by land, two if by sea . . . coffee . . . burning tobacco . . . eventually the smell of a toasted English muffin slightly charred along its rim. My father ate the muffin with a liberal topping of margarine and honey (Golden Blossom) — two amber pools with clots of wan yellow in the slight concavity of its warmed halves. As I tried to wake up, I’d often stare at the honey pools because the muffin had often been saved until the main part of breakfast had been consumed—eggs sunny-side up with bacon, ham, or even a flank steak. The honey would often run and drip as my father bit into the muffin, and he liked to keep a portion of it to sop up the smear of egg yolk on his plate. He would then light a Marlboro and have another cup of coffee, ladling and stirring spoonfuls of white sugar into his porcelain cup (and at a later time, Sweet-and-Lo). He seemed to crave a lot of sugar.

There was also a sleepy minimal conversation among the glowing coals, only those few words needed for daily survival: “one more cigarette and coffee.” “do you have your keys?” “call you later.” And in the large interstices of conversation, the small tinny radio: crooner songs, big band nostalgia, pop hits, chatter, and numerous spots like:

Welcome to Our World. Welcome to the World of TWA!

The kitchen had been a tight space for five people and sometimes a couple more on Sundays and Thursday nights when my other grandmother and great aunt joined us. The kitchen. . . Linoleum floor. Half paneled walls even more dulled by stains of nicotine. Formica counter tops. A tarnished plastic laminate dining table with black metal legs. A cat clock on the wall. Several plastic ashtrays holding crude pyramids of butts. A plastic napkin holder sculpted in the shape of a phallic looking mushroom. Yellowing white cabinets with black metal handles. A working waffle iron and toaster that my grandmother had won at a Catholic church bingo game in 1929, the year of the Big Crash, a sturdy iron relic of a happy prosperous decade when supposedly everything was still right in the world just before everything collapsed.