Chapter 21

The Glass Room

The light on the panes is bright and sharp this morning, the first day of June. Ramona and I have our coffee and tea in the glass observatory room. Today, for whatever reason, I recall the fights staged here with her mother, years of fights, and they most often occurred as I was either leaving or entering the glass room.

I’ve been making calculations of all the hours spent in here with my observations of stars and planets (a little over four decades), reviewing my old log books in which I’d recorded daily start and end times with the telescope, or telescopes. The hours are then being entered into a database program on my PC. It’s a prodigious undertaking and Ramona has been helping when she can find the time, but she is in her first semester of graduate school at Rutgers and most of her time is taken up with studying.

Ramona is a beautiful 23-year-old woman who doesn’t seem to have inherited beauty genes from either her mother or her father, and she’s intelligent, level headed and focused on her academic career. As we drink our tea and coffee this morning, Ramona and I talk about the coming Transit of Venus, on June 8, 2004, just one week from today.

There have been changes. Gladys no longer lives here, for one. We did well together when it came to raising Ramona, but later Gladys had decided to return to school and gotten a degree in Marketing followed by an HR job in Corporate America along the Route 287 corridor. A late bloomer. She told me she wanted out of the marriage just past our 35th anniversary, a tepid and lackluster dinner celebration appended with Quiz-O and karaoke. The divorce was finalized in 2000 and Gladys remarried soon after. During college Ramona had spent most of her vacation time and summer breaks living with Gladys, (though she was angry at both of us) but since I’ve gotten sick she’s been staying with me and commuting to her classes at Rutgers. No longer angry, Ramona is taking care of me. We have moved my bed into the glass room and one of my prize telescopes is positioned at an angle to the bed so that I don’t need to strain or bend in order to view the heavens on a nightly basis, or every other night lately. Most often I will view the Orion Nebula or Alpha-Centauri or Messier Object-58 until I fall asleep.

Several years ago I started to fill the glass room with plants. It was a natural greenhouse, after all, and I started modestly with 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 has taken on a jungle-like character: rank foliage obscuring the mission-style table stacked with my star charts and maps, giant ferns and cut leaf towering to the ceiling, vines and tendrils gracefully coiling around the silver barrels of lesser-used telescopes, a fascinating juxtaposition contrasting the cold inorganic elegance of astronomical science with the Edenesque organic fertility of earth . . . sky and earth. . . . I feel like General Sternwood in “The Big Sleep” and while I don’t have his disease or TB, breathing in all this wonderful oxygen seems good for the lungs and maybe the soul, too.

And a few years ago I acquired a couple of parrots to match the tropical decor. Recently divorced, and alone in the house with Ramona away at college, I thought I could use some company. The parrots, a male and female, were named George and Gracie though I never intended on using the pair for breeding purposes. With the door of the glass room sealed, Gracie and George dart about, a flutter and streak of primary colors beneath a cloak of emerald green. Sometimes one (usually Gracie) will land on my shoulder or in my lap and I’ll stroke its cheek and maybe feed him or her sunflower seeds. At night they mostly sleep outside their cage on the limb of a rubber plant or palm tree, and while watching a lunar eclipse or a meteor shower I may hear an occasional note of contentment escape from a syrinx. But when moonlight fills the glass room I normally wind up putting the parrots back in their cage and covering. I will also find droppings here and there, sometimes on a neglected telescope, but I no longer mind. The parrots, the plants, a few books and magazines, my PC—these are the things that now fill my day as I wait for the stars to appear.

And when Ramona is home after her classes we talk and laugh, sometimes share a glass or two of wine. We’ve started teasing one another about our names. She says that mine sounds like some gloomy Norse dude, and Ramona Hale reminds her of a Romance novelist—“A Ramonance novelist.” I tell her that Ramona Hale sounds better as a lead singer in a band, perhaps a Latin band, some exotic chanteuse belting out Salsa or Mambo, but country and rock-and-roll could work for her too.

“Was your idea,” she reminds me. “Yours and Mom’s.”

“It’s a lovely name,” I say, and after more banter she agrees with me.

Things don’t always go as planned, which is a pretty reliable cliché and true in spite of its being a cliché. I’ve taken good care of myself for most of my adult life: decent diet, never smoked tobacco after the U.S. Navy, infrequent drinking, and from my late 40s through most of my 50s—nearly a decade—I was an avid runner but ultimately needed to quit because of a knee injury. I then replaced running with walking a few miles each day, but walking is also now over for me. I’d belatedly come to realize that during all the years employed at Brainchild Scientific I’d gone from being on my feet most of the day to hardly being on my feet at all, and I also became aware of the problem with Astronomy and my having been mostly sedentary. One could stand for a while, but given the length of time involved fixing coordinates and observing, it was preferable to sit.

 

The Crystal Palace was planned and built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London. It was a marvel of engineering in its time because no other glass structure had ever come before it and the availability of cheap plate glass in the 1840s made construction possible.  There were numerous bids for design but ultimately the plan went to Joseph Paxton a noted horticulturist and master gardener. He had experimented with glass and glass construction to house the amazon lilies imported to England. Every pane of glass was the same dimensions: 10 inches wide by 49 inches long and they were connected by teams of glaziers to form rectangular grids 24-feet long by 24-feet wide that could be extended indefinitely and formed a vast rectangular hall, surmounted by an arched transept roof shaped like a prism that would allow for water drainage under heavy rain.  Paxton also devised ways to deal with the problem of extreme heat including louvres for air flow and saturated canvas covers over the glass to retain coolness. The final structure was 1848 feet long, by 546 feet wide and 135 feet high, the length and width divisible by 24 feet, (the size of the assembled grids) and it was 900,000 square feet overall. Glaziers were brought in from France to help finish the project in time.

There wasn’t anything like the Crystal Palace for efficiency and the inexpensive cost of materials and construction. The structure was a breathtaking marvel of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and set the model for a number of exhibitions and expositions and world’s fairs to follow. Essentially, it was a giant greenhouse with a vaulted roof and not meant to withstand any serious shocks and assaults from without or within. And despite the clever roof design and “Paxton Gutter” runoff system, the Palace still leaked like a sieve. You may observe something similar while standing in a greenhouse made of glass on a rainy day.

 

The idea of glass, of glass manufacturing and what glass does for us leads me back to telescopes and the optical observatory telescopes like Palomar and Wilson or the Primum Mobile at the Empyrean.  There is an element of the old Brainchild Scientific store in the way I have arranged my telescopes in here. I’m surrounded by my favorite ones though I’ve recently given Wyatt-Edwin a new creation built not long before the illness. Ramona and I often talk about her half-brother. We talk about how well he’s been doing since graduating college (Wyatt-Edwin has had some early successes) and we talk about his quirks and idiosyncrasies, and sometimes our talk will stray to the subject of Beatrice whom Ramona has never met but knows the history. Despite her scientific brilliance and technical acumen, Ramona is also something of an empath. She understands Wyatt-Edwin’s pain, partially as a child of divorce herself, but she is more saddened by Beatrice’s loss and isolation and also that Wyatt-Edwin always refers to Beatrice and Laura as his “mothers.” I’m still his only father, though he did know a stepfather for a short time . . . several years ago.

Until recently I’d never gone into great detail with Ramona about the problems her mother and I endured during our 33-year marriage. Gladys and my first mistake had been starting too young, but in the 1950s and early 60s marrying young had been the norm. I didn’t know if Gladys had ever told Ramona about her extra-marital affair, but it was obvious that I’d happily engaged in at least one dalliance or indiscretion resulting in her half-brother, and I alluded to one other short-lived affair (Carol Erskine). I mentioned Gladys and Bob Lane without mentioning Bob by name, and it turned out that Gladys had already given Ramona that information, including the person she’d been involved with. (“Gee—your boss?”). So much for secrets and the better part of valor.

Oh sure, one could shrug the whole thing off: “The past is past . . . what’s done is done . . . it’s all water under the bridge . . . what difference does it make now?” and so on. However, when children are involved, at any age really, the philosophical long view of past events doesn’t necessarily come easily. Remorse does. I might be flip and dismissive by saying something like, “it didn’t work out,” and while that palliative comforting generalization is certainly true, it doesn’t begin to cover the individual failings of her mother and I, those which had made our relationship bitter, often sad, nor does it cover the steady ache that flung us into the arms of others who were temporarily willing to have us and create the bubble of magical assurances that Gladys and I could never quite see in one another.

I tell Ramona there was a time between her birth and around age five when I’d had to forego my observation work. Gladys and I were too busy. Once Ramona had started kindergarten, I gradually returned to my earlier amateur work and studies, but I never discovered another binary or multiple star system after Burns and Allen. I became more obsessed with comets largely because of Shoemaker-Levy 9 that pounded Jupiter in July of 1994, and also Hale-Bopp in 1997, visible to the naked eye for nearly an entire year! And I’d observed galaxies and novae that I’d previously neglected in my search for binaries.

Comfortably high, Ramona and I reminisce about the nights she’d spent out here with me as a young girl using her own telescope that I had built for her. She fondly recalls those nights and thanks me and credits me for her love of science. Although Ramona’s inspiration had started outward with Astronomy and earth science, by her teens the inspiration turned inward, but not to particle physics. She is studying to be a microbiologist.

“The glass room is a class room,” she says with a quick laugh and adds, “Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of rhyming. Must be the wine.”

“Sounds like something your brother would have said,” I remind her.

And we talk some more about Wyatt-Edwin and about his art, including a new series of paintings that recreate the famous Hubble images from the Voyager I and II space crafts. He will be here on June 8 to visit and watch the Transit of Venus with us.

 

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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.

                       


Night Two — Eve

I gazed up slowly at the Cristalinum and its massive ribbed dome: the fork mount, the polar axle and worm wheel, the alt-azimuth motor, the camera and lens adapters, the shutter plates like something on a Stegosaurus hide, the steel members of the dome’s armature like a vaulted three-dimensional fan, spokes radiantly arcing to converge at the peak, a sealed point about to slide open, seizing us with the gaping aperture of Heaven through which the giant telescope carried us back in time.

“Behold the Veil!” Adam Greenfield exclaimed with a sweeping gesture of his arm, like a carnival barker. “In the constellation Cygnus. NGC 6960, being the Western Veil and Witch’s Broom, and NGC 6992, first discovered by William Herschel. The gauzy remnant of a supernova, not unlike the more well-known Crab, but we think this one is older, though still a mere baby compared to others.”          The nebula’s structure slightly resembled the Milky Way galaxy. The giant 84-inch Cristallinum telescope mainly focused on the Witch’s Broom portion of the nebula, a graceful elegant tail of gases. One of the startling features of this nebula was the visual paradox of its being simultaneously frozen and in motion like a cast off veil slowly drifting downward and then stopping, but not fully stopped, closer to being suspended or snagged at some invisible catch in its descent. I was reminded of an elongated finger, or an electric worm or sinew, like the one seen in a Jacob’s Ladder but fixed and frozen.

Beatrice and Eve chatted about a movie that had to do with the Veil Nebula, Dark Star. Animated and witty, more comfortable tonight, Beatrice grew larger than life, a trompe l’oeil the result of observing these magnificent-in-scale objects. She’d gathered herself into an insubstantial persona, vaporous and somehow alluringly erotic like some pagan goddess inwardly warring with longing and sensual gratification as she guided the hero on his quest. She took a deep breath and said:

“When we were driving here yesterday we met someone who knew the both of you. Virgil.”

Adam and Eve stared at each a moment until Eve mouthed the name, “Virgil.”

“Of course,” Adam said, “we know him well. I believe his tribal name was Gaagii which means “Raven.” Virgil came to the Empyrean as a graduate intern and stayed here about two years. I was starting my residency then, 1967 or ’68, somewhere around that time. He was an excellent student and first-rate amateur astronomer, not unlike you, Mr. Hale—something in both your working styles, perhaps employing more imagination or intuition to reach that eureka moment. Anyway, Virgil still comes to see us a two or three times a year, and while I know he still studies astronomy on his own he’d decided years ago that the academic life wasn’t for him and instead became a craftsman, a maker of fine Native American jewelry. In fact, I’m wearing one of his creations—moonstones of moons.”

Adam held out his left hand so we could examine the ring that Virgil had made for him. A fat silver band studded with moonstone and black onyx, each stone representing a phase of the lunar cycle so that new moon was all black onyx and full moon was all moonstone and first and last quarter, waxing and waning crescent, and waxing and waning gibbous were a combination of these two.

“I turn the band to the top of my finger so it points to whichever stone is the current lunar phase,” Adam said fondly. The ring seemed to be as important to him as Beatrice felt about her bracelet, and I realized that Virgil’s talent lay not only in his skilled workmanship but in a supernumerary ability to see a person’s soul. A piece of jewelry made a first step, a tactile and sensual offer and it more or less confirmed his vision based on how the gift offer was received. He often learned a great deal about another person in that first generous probing. Precious stones, gems, also possessed astrological significance, and while Virgil, like me, did not practice Astrology (according to Adam), he understood the planets and cosmology and also understood planetary, solar, lunar and earthly cycles and was keenly attuned to such relationships. I had sensed that in Virgil’s person and spirit there lived a harmonious fusion of the sky and the earth. . . . I had too much sky and knew it. . . . I thought I might want to learn the Navajo language.

Eve worked the console with the Veil Nebula still suspended in front of us. She then set the coordinates for the great Pinwheel Galaxy.

“I’m heading to the cafeteria soon,” she said. “Would you like some coffee?”

I declined. At home I would often brew coffee or strong black tea to carry me through hours of viewing and working, depending on the object or time of night/morning I was observing. I would typically work no later than 2:00 am because I needed to get some sleep for my job, but if the positions of a Messier object required that I chart after 3:00 am, I would then go to bed by 10:00 or possibly as early as 9:00, wake up at 3:00 and stay awake for the rest of the day. That’s where coffee helped the most.

But in this cathedral of steel and concrete and computer banks and instruments and telescope lenses the size of above ground swimming pools, I felt neither sleepy or jittery but rather alert and calm, an enlightened meditative state, absorbing every word and physical detail that passed between Adam and Eve as they engaged in astronomer shop talk. And because of the dome it felt more like a mosque than a cathedral, or at least a Greek Orthodox sacred edifice reminiscent of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the ancient seat of Byzantium which I’d been fortunate enough to visit on a Navy shore leave. I thought of how vastly different the experience would have been had I come all the way out here to the desert with Gladys. For one thing, Gladys would not have been with me at the Empyrean Observatory but instead lounging at the motel, stupefied by the local programming and drinking her cherished Soco or a White Russian, the ethereal blue nimbus of television light encircling her nodding head, pretty much the same as at home. I then saw Gladys as a saint or mage, the holy light traveling with her wherever she happened to go, New Jersey or Arizona. Bored with TV is where Gladys would always be.

Beatrice began flirting with Adam but the flirting soon evolved into a more serious dialogue concerning Theoretical Physics and Cosmology in general, and I hung back because I sensed her inquisitive nature would most likely favor Adam’s view or explanation of the cosmos over mine.

“The universe is expanding but what and where is the logical endpoint, the boundary? And when does it stop and begin to contract? How can it even have an age?”

“Background emission,” Adam said, “and Quarks . . . all these things tell us about the beginning, about the Big Bang. And of course the Doppler Shift in the spectra of stars reveals that all matter in the universe is moving apart, all objects moving away from one another . . . an expanding universe if you will.”

“But our astronomical dating is based on our own interpretation of time.”

Adam looked astonished.

“Wait! You’re a science teacher?”

“But creative, too,” I interjected.

“I appreciate that. It’s always good to question,” Adam said, staring at Beatrice. “Distance is time. Light years. The time it takes for light to reach Earth from the sun has been an extremely useful standard of measurement.”

“The measurements themselves are still arbitrary,” Beatrice said. “We discreetly divide a day into 24 units called hours, a single rotation of the Earth. And then we segment every hour into 60 minutes and every minute into 60 seconds. Why 60? Why not 150? The speed of light still assumes that there is a unit of time called a second which is what we use to measure distance, but what is a second? And then there are months and years. We describe one orbit around the sun as a year and divide that into 365 days and 12 months comprised of different numbered days. Our calendar on average is anywhere from two to three days different than a lunar month. Why are months either 30 or 31 days with February having 28 days except for every four years? The Romans only had ten months in their calendar. And what about the Chinese calendar? Or the Mayan calendar we saw on those walls outside? The Maya had the same number of days in a year but corrected differently than us when the standard measurements didn’t conform. No Leap Year. Instead they came up with ten months of 36 days each and had a kind of leftover month of five days.”

No doubt Adam had heard this before, but in the moment he’d become so enchanted by Beatrice that he weighed his words before speaking as if he’d been prepared and keyed to impress her. A seductive poetic language, Astronomy, and though Beatrice was a science teacher she was also something of a poet. . . . Eve continued to enter coordinates at the computer console. She always appeared intensely focused and devoid of emotion in her task, but there was another dimension to her that I’d been unsuccessful in teasing out. Before Adam spoke again I studied Eve briefly and realized that she reminded me a little of Sad Laura.

“Some brilliant questions,” Adam remarked as he faced Beatrice. “We know that Man has created these measurements drawn largely from observations of our sun and moon which then enabled us to determine distance in relation to time. And although the ancients’ model of a geocentric Ptolemaic universe had been wrong, they’d devised a calendar and astronomical measurements based on their observations: the motion of our planet relative to our sun and moon and the planets nearest to us in the solar system. The calendars you just mentioned, except the Mayan, are or were mostly lunar based. Anyway, all calendars were motivated by an essential need of Neolithic Man to understand the relationship between the heavens and agriculture, and that relationship was first manifested in magic and later in religion. Being able to fix the times of year to plant or harvest created all kinds of possibilities including construction and more geographically diverse trade and ultimately smaller societies gathered into larger ones, becoming cities and civilizations. The calendar was absolutely essential in the evolution that took place from the Neolithic period to Civilization. Accurate or inaccurate, a calendar was the first step in learning about the universe.”

“But not a clock,” Beatrice countered. “That came thousands of years later. For God’s sakes, we fix the time zones of our planet based on a starting point in England! What a conceit!”

“Well, Einstein said, ‘the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.’”

Eve had already left the observatory room and Beatrice soon took a break as well. They were gone for a short while but they returned together from the cafeteria. Eve held a golden apple that she’d gotten from the cafeteria and she offered a bite of it to Adam.

Of course I had never before seen the Pleiades—Messier-45 (M45)—through a telescope of the Cristallinum’s size and power. At first view it was like a dozen or more flashbulbs popping, as if I were a film star walking out of a Hollywood premiere. Translucent haloes arrayed in a formation like a starship fleet preparing to invade Earth, looming and menacing. I quickly turned my head and imagined the afterimage flickering on my retinas like sunspots. Beautiful names: Alcyone (an eclipsing binary), Merope, Maia, Electra—the four brightest or most spectrally luminous of the sisters—and with the others could have made a casually discarded strand of pearIs or the glinting glass and silver ornaments on a Christmas tree. Watching the Pleiades I couldn’t tell if I was wandering among them or trapped inside of them. An extremely dense cluster, its main stars cloaked in nebulous dust and gases. And because of the large number of stars and proximity of the cluster, and their range of magnitude, the Cristallinum presented the illusion of endless depth of field.

“Relatively new hot blue stars,” said Adam Greenfield. “Most likely formed from a nebula. And so close! What a great tool for understanding distances viz-a-viz stellar magnitude and ambient dense formations.”

“So close you can almost hop on over there,” said Eve. “Just down the interstellar highway a piece.”

Adam grinned, amused.

“Eve’s the real comedian,” he explained. “I mostly play George to her Gracie,” and he then actually winked at Beatrice and me almost in the way George Burns might have winked when lovingly excusing Gracie Allen to his TV audience. His reference immediately pulled me back to why we were here in the first place—wide-eyed children of the Empyrean.

“But Eve’s humor,” Adam continued, “is a bit on the dry side. Not Gracie’s dingbat savant.”

As we drove back to the Caritas Motel a few random drops of rain spattered the windshield. I felt spent, wiped out, a bit sullen and moody. I needed rest but wanted to confront Beatrice while this mood of mine festered.

“I saw you flirting with him,” I said, accusingly.

“Don’t tell me you care!”

“I don’t.”

“You’re jealous!” Beatrice said in a surprised but half mocking tone. “Is it because Adam Greenfield is a real astronomer?”

“I’m a real astronomer. Don’t patronize me.”

“You’re an amateur astronomer. A rank amateur. . .”

“Oh yeah? I’ve worked with telescopes and lenses every day of my life for nearly 20 years!”

She shot me an indulgent look.

“You’ve sold them. And they’re not anything on the scale of the ones we’ve been looking through here. Adam is a resident astronomer. He publishes. He lectures. He attends and participates in professional conferences around the world. That’s what I mean by a real astronomer.”

“Those things don’t necessarily make you a real astronomer,” I reminded her.

“Jesus, the routine is sacred for you, isn’t it? You are such a creature of habit! It doesn’t matter if the habit is Gladys or your telescopes. You don’t even seem to care if you’re happy or unhappy. It’s like you have no sense of that, being in touch with your own emotions.”

I sharply steered the car over onto the shoulder of the road and glared

at Beatrice.

“What are you doing?”

“Please stop it.”

She quietly nodded and I began driving again. Familiarity does breed contempt.

“And where has it gotten you?” she soon recommenced, sounding more like a peevish spouse than ever.

“It’s gotten us here for one thing.”

“True, but after how many years and thousands of hours? So much wasted time.”

“Sorry, but I don’t view it as ‘wasted time.’”

“But couldn’t some of it have been better spent? Maybe with Gladys? Or a child? Or a close friend? Time used in different and surprising ways?”

“So what’s your point?”

“I mean you have wondered about it, haven’t you? What else you might have been doing instead?”

“Sure, but ultimately you decide on what is most important, what to follow, and you then bear the consequences of your decision, including if it involves suffering for the things you’ve let go of. You can’t have it all.”

“Oh no?”

“No! When you’re older maybe you will better understand.”

Beatrice laughed loudly. “Thanks, Dad!”

I laughed too, but I was certain Beatrice did want to have it all: to have our baby without conforming to societal norms and strictures; to be a teacher but not adhere closely to rules; to have a man and a woman when it suited her, perhaps at the same time. But as you age you begin to notice this flawed responsibility on the part of the young, this lack of sacrifice and unbridled selfishness, the whole “growing up” thing, and the problem always appeared to get worse with each generation proudly more carnal, self-indulgent and nihilistic than its predecessor. I thought of the punks replacing the hippies, the hippies replacing beatniks and bohemians, and so on. Ever since we’d met I had never felt a generation gap between Beatrice and me, but I felt one now.

“I’m being pulled earthward,” she said abruptly, “and the sky has less meaning for me these days. Gravity is more of a living presence in my body.”

“I think I understand,” I said, though I did not.

Beatrice watched me drive, her mouth slightly skewed and sardonic. The desert encircled us, a vast charcoal amphitheater and the sky was a patchwork of stars and clouds that looked like torn rags. I caught a glimpse of Castor and Pollux as the pickup sped through a darkly beautiful but menacing landscape.

“He’s holding her back, you know . . . Adam. Eve is doing most of the work and Adam is taking all the credit.”

“Really?”

“She told me. I ran into her in the ladies room and then we walked together to the cafeteria, got some tea, and sat and talked for a few minutes. You men were still busy with the Pleiades—the Seven Sisters—while the real sisters were elsewhere.”

“And?”

“Eve’s not happy . . . she’s considering making a move to Mount Wilson or Arecibo, even. She’s brilliant and unappreciated. Adam is exploiting her.”

Beatrice sounded a bit smug with her inside information about our host astronomers.

“Adam seems like such a nice guy,” I said.

“He is but maybe not as nice as you think. Kind of like you,” Beatrice giggled, sporting with me once again. I let her comment slide. I was thinking of Eve. Though she wasn’t as beautiful as Beatrice, there was something sexy and alluring in Eve Atwater becoming a resident astronomer pretty much anywhere in the world, and in any place she chose that would allow her to pursue a major discovery.

“Nothing between them?”

“No, no . . .  she’s married by the way, her husband’s a welder, but highly sought after. He did a lot of work on the Primum Mobile complex. He was shooting out sparks I guess.”

“A welder? I would have never pictured her with a welder.”

Her head was in profile but slightly turned toward me as if she were staring on an angle through the front windshield. Fleck of her blue eye a pale turquoise.

Beatrice smiled to herself.

“She said she married him because he had strong hands.”

Beatrice’s Dream and the Mayan Calendar

Late next morning, over a bacon, egg, and cornmeal pancake breakfast, Beatrice told me her dream.

“I dreamt that we’d been traveling a long time through the desert, covering great distances. We eventually followed a dirt road to the bottom of a canyon and you made a campfire and told me you were thinking of driving home alone and I was frightened because you were abandoning me. Then the Australian guy from the café’ walked up out of nowhere. He crouched over the fire holding half a dozen eggs which he cracked open and fried directly on the coals. And while the eggs were frying and sizzling on the coals the sky turned dark and starless and the Aussie slowly levitated and floated up between the high walls of the canyon like a genie in the campfire smoke. I wanted to comment on that miracle, so I turned to look at you, and you now had the head of a coyote and were wearing amulets made from feathers and shells. You were adorned like a shaman and you held our baby in your arms and I asked you what you intended to do with the baby but you wouldn’t answer me. And I could not see the baby’s face because you were holding it tight and too close to your chest, but from what I could see the baby had long shiny black kind of like Laura’s, like a raven’s feathers. Soon we were standing on the highest peak looking down into the canyon and all the stars had come out, a sky packed with stars, and you no longer had the coyote mask or head but you suddenly threw the baby into the canyon and I was so full of rage I decided to kill you, but then a second after you had thrown the baby it turned into a snowflake and all the stars above us began drifting down toward earth and joined with the first snowflake which was the infant child. It was a gentle silent snow without any wind, and I felt a profound adoration for our child . . . the dream then shifted to my being back at school, teaching, but before I was there I was briefly in the observatory making love to Eve. I was naked but Eve wore all her clothes, her lab suit, and she held me tight as she kissed and sucked my breasts and a minute later it was you sucking my breasts while Eve watched. Back at school I was rushing down this endless corridor, almost like a tunnel, and there were students and teachers and hundreds of people I didn’t recognize standing in formation against the walls and lockers or poking their heads out of classroom doors, and I was hurrying to get away from all of them because they were pressing on me with judgmental and accusing looks and words, and the more I hurried the more those faces and bodies pressed in on me and the long corridor kept shrinking and closing up, narrowing, constricting, with only a pinpoint of light at its end and I started losing my breath and choking and I woke up.”

“That’s an epic dream,” I said, slightly dazed by her narrative.

Beatrice sipped her coffee and said, “There was more but that’s all I remember.”

“Quite a lot, though. Are you always attracted to a woman over a man? Even in your dreams?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure what you mean by that.”

“Eve is kind of plain, too.”

She shook her head, annoyed with my old fashioned attitudes and mores.

“But it’s not all about superficial beauty, is it? You should know that. Come on. You’ll be 40 in half a year and I’m surprised you’ve learned so little about Love. Is it because you’ve been too preoccupied with your telescopes all these years? Kind of a hermit?”

“I’ve had several affairs,” I said, defensively.

“Even worse! And not to mention your failed marriage (though you’re still married). How did you describe it? A ‘dead-end,’ a ‘stagnant morass,’ ‘one-dimensional and repressed?’”

I leaned back in my seat and studied Beatrice and her mercurial, sometimes distancing expressions.

“So this is how you thank me. Must be hormones.”

“Yours or mine?”

“Yours,” I said.

She glared back at me. “Understand that we will not be taking care of this baby together and you will have limited visitation and access. You will have almost no parental involvement whatsoever.”

“I understand.”

“I don’t think you do.”

“Fine, then. Have fun raising my child.”

“I definitely will.”

After breakfast we took a drive in the desert. The desert was rife with flowers at this season: Saguaro and Cholla already in bloom, red, pink and yellow flowers bursting from their prickly crowns; Ocotillo with bright red flowers; Mesquite with yellow blossoms, and palo verde (green hair), golden poppy, lupine and primrose. Although spring season was one of the driest the desert landscape had a sufficient amount of green left from winter, particularly December, the month with the heaviest precipitation. Beatrice and I hiked briefly, following a fairly well-used trail and as we walked in silence the dry brush and soil whispered beneath our feet. We stopped often to look at a flower close up and maybe take a picture, and we didn’t speak other than to comment on what we had just seen. We spotted a gopher, a frozen baby rattle snake and a mule deer.

We returned to the Empyrean. The façade of the main observatory building displayed zodiac symbols from the Mayan Haab Calendar—suns, moons and planets, symbols named Pop, Woi, Sip, Mori, Chen, Yax, Muwan . . . owl, crocodile, puma, turtle, jaguar, bat . . . 19 altogether, seven more than our calendar, but the Mayan calendar was 365-days too and reported to be more accurate. Eighteen of the nineteen months had 20 days and the 19th month had five days. The Maya were able to see five planets in our solar system and Venus held the greatest interest for them. They portrayed the ecliptic (belt of the Zodiac) as a double-headed serpent and they’d also identified at least two constellations: Scorpius and Gemini.

“They had several calendars,” I mentioned in passing. “I think one of them used the cycle of the Pleiades in Taurus and was called the sacred calendar.”

Beatrice said nothing and continued to stare, but soon after, as we were leaving the facade, she said, “I wish I’d brought a sketchbook.”

The real calendars looked like extremely intricate and dizzying mandalas. Several faces appeared in the frieze and stelae but one face kept repeating, the face shown in the center of the calendar—a grimacing, tongue-wagging god, a central figure in most Mayan calendars which looked similar to the mandalas seen in Tibetan prayer wheels, also with their visages of local gods—bug-eyed, comically fierce and leering. It seemed that only Judaeo-Christian devils and demons were humorless (except for Mephistoles in Faust) and we’ve feared them as a dualistic threat to our precious and stable egos. Western religion has tried to banish and deny evil at our spiritual and mental peril, but these pre-Colombian and Asiatic demons are able to wreak widespread havoc, plagues, and collective maladies and curses with something akin to a crazy smile on their face. I felt confused, some unnamed terror in their presence. Since the start of the trip, or earlier, since Christmas Eve with Beatrice, I’d been trying to come to terms with why I always needed to know or figure out a given situation, why my life was so anchored in habit and repetition and control. These Mayan symbols on the frieze and stelae of the Empyrean were telling me the opposite: that there were times I should give in to not knowing and sometimes be afraid, perhaps very afraid. Maybe you had to suffer trials, maybe you had to turn on Fortune’s wheel every now and then, maybe you had to go through loss, fear and emotional pain before you could begin to live. It was worth considering.

And I immediately thought of Bob Lane, dredged up from memory like an unannounced visitor on a Sunday afternoon. It was Easter Eve and I’d stopped in at the Starlight Tavern to take a break in my packing. Gladys had already gone to her mother’s for Easter and I felt like getting out of the house because the excitement of my pending trip made me restless. I was shocked to find Bob at the Starlight, seeing him in an unaccustomed venue, that person-place incongruity in which you need more than a split second to process the incongruity and confirm your senses aren’t subjecting you to a shell game. Bob Lane sat alone in one of the booths near the bar. I had not seen him in half a year, because he only visited the store about twice a year these days and the last time I’d heard from him was over the Christmas holiday when he’d called to announce he would be wintering in Cancun and places nearby, having recently sold his beloved yacht.

“Had this tight little number in Cozumel,” he said, sipping a dry martini.

“Like Wendy?” I reminded him, but he ignored my sarcasm or else missed the point of it.

“Put Wendy to shame. . .what are you drinking, Soren?” Bob waved to the bartender. I ordered a Schlitz.

He still wore the commodore outfit or some kindred version and one of the cuffs was soiled with a frayed edge. Bob’s Hugh Hefner mystique was becoming a bit weary and anachronistic in the 1980s. I could see he’d been descending into a confused middle-aged melancholia. He’d been coming to terms with his own mortality.

“Doing anything for Easter?” I asked him.

“No. . .” A rueful look. “How’s Gladys?”

“She’ll be spending Easter at her mother’s.”

“But not with you. Are you two okay?”

“About the same,” I said, though my answer no longer rang true. Not entirely.

“Seeing someone else?”

“Sort of.”

“Good for you. Life’s too short. Don’t deny yourself anything, anything,” he repeated, gulping the paint thinner gin and raising his glass for another round.

“It’s about fucking time for you, Soren. You know what I mean?” and he actually gave me a wink and a punch on the arm. I’d been party to Lane’s facile hedonist credo for years, but it somehow felt more desperate, centered on the zeitgeist trend of looking out for number one. I mentioned I’d be taking a week’s vacation the week after tomorrow, Easter, and oddly Bob didn’t seem shocked or even fazed by the news. And he understood that I wouldn’t be traveling alone.

“Everyone should be having fun and enjoying themselves,” he said, and that included me too. He knew the store would run in my absence, that I had delegated responsibility and that I always ran a “tight ship” to use a hackneyed Navy phrase. Bob said he would check in a couple times during the coming week and was amused by the thought that his appearance at Brainchild Scientific might elicit questioning stares among those workers who’d never seen him before. He acted relieved and almost excited to be having some involvement with his store again.

We drank in silence for a minute or two until Bob announced, “Nature calls, be right back.” I watched him stumble and weave toward the men’s room, bantering with the bartender enroute. A few minutes passed. The Starlight looked lonely on Easter Eve, maybe a dozen patrons, mostly regulars, scattered among the booths and on a few bar stools. To reinforce the holiday mood, the television above the bar played “The Ten Commandments.” I saw Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. I began to wonder about Bob Lane. Families were home dyeing Easter eggs and mothers would be setting out chocolate bunnies and jelly beans once the kids had gone to sleep (Bob had largely jettisoned those times from his life). I sensed the cultural hold of Christianity on America. Whether you believed in Jesus as Savior or not, a bar was no place to be spending Easter Eve and I regretted being a part of the desolate and gloomy ambience of The Starlight when I could have been home observing the Moons of Jupiter. But I was happy that I’d run into my boss.

Who’d been missing for about 15 minutes! I approached the bar. The bartender stared at a scene with Heston and the Queen of Egypt played by Ann Baxter.

“That guy left. I saw him go out. I thought you knew. . . ”

“No. . .how?”

“Well your ‘good friend’ and ‘best pal’ (which is what he told me) stuck you with the bill. Four martinis and two Schlitz Talls—$16.50, please.”

So I’d had a disorienting and alien memory contrasted with my present location. I saw the urban East Coast in a whole new light and it appeared a little weird and silly against this world of pueblos, magnified stars and myth. I felt humbled, not as self-centered as I may have behaved back East, not as caught up in fantasy and self-deception.

Beatrice and I visited the Native American Museum and browsed through artifacts, legends, and sepia-toned photographs of earlier tribal chiefs in full ceremonial dress. Pottery, Hohokam vessels, Mimbres bowls, Anasazi jugs, Serapes and Chimayo blankets, bowl baskets, olla baskets, ceremonial kilts, silver in abundance, a peyote church ring like an intricate creature with spanned appendages, figurines and always Kachina dolls, the most intriguing and inspiring representations of tradition, myth and design among the Pueblo Indians. Although we hadn’t talked for most of the day, I could see Beatrice’s fascination with the history and crafts of the local tribes. She strolled from glass case to glass case with that same rapt expression I’d seen playing across her face on the day she’d strolled up the aisle at Brainchild for the first time, stopping to examine every Galileo Thermometer, impaled butterfly and bird skeleton in her passage. Whenever she bothered to look my way a trace of her former anger returned, but it felt more contained, not as harsh, and I figured that she’d probably softened a little since this morning with reminders of my being the one who had made this trip possible for her and her baby.

In the late afternoon we had a picnic at the reservoir. As described by Adam Greenfield the reservoir had been made for the sole purpose of providing water to the observatories. Each observatory required water usage far beyond the capacity of a hydraulic conveyance system going up the mountainside, and wells also would have been terribly insufficient. The reservoir, with its man-made lake and stands of Yellow and Pinion Pine, had become a favored recreation area for visiting and resident astronomers and staff, a place to relax and unwind and have a little fun. Although we were visiting the reservoir in 1980, I felt a pervasive early-60s mood to this spot, as if it were frozen in time two decades ago, in the Cold War, in the Space Race era, in the Camelot era, the Twilight Zone era. The setting reminded me of late 1962, the time I’d begun working at Brainchild Scientific, most likely why I felt this strong connection. Beatrice mentioned that it would be an ideal location for ingesting mushrooms tomorrow night after our final session at the observatory, and she also told me that she wanted to climb Blake’s Peak sometime on Saturday. Beatrice had participated in several rock climbing trips while at Rutgers. I tried to dissuade her. Rock climbing pregnant didn’t strike me as a smart thing to do.

“Oh, Soren. . .”

“I know. ‘The baby will be fine.’”

“The baby will be fine. Thank you.”

I felt the earlier tension between us melt away and our quiet time at the reservoir might have been the reason, I wasn’t sure. It was either the reservoir or the effortless passage of our day. I recalled Beatrice’s dream and my role in it and I felt some remorse for having teased her about her bisexuality. Could it have been my having held the baby away from her and then ultimately hurling it into the abyss that made her lash out at me? She’d said, “Understand that we will not be taking care of this baby together and you will have limited visitation and access.” Her comment had stung me but frankly I didn’t have any way of knowing how our lives would play out with a baby and then a child. Separately, I imagined my going on at Brainchild Scientific, and at home with my telescopes in the “Purgatory of Gladys”; she with Sad Laura and her middle school and middle school students. Life would continue more or less the same. Or so I believed at the time.

We ate dinner at our favorite cantina: tortilla, fried chiles, nopalitos and frijoles, and then drove skyward to the Empyrean Observatory to begin our second night.

Adam and Eve

The domes of the Empyrean Observatory appeared shortly before sunset, high above the mesa, blunt rotund spires, exotic mushrooms, their white skins like an alien fortress on a red planet. The world dissolved into a vast lake of fire; rock and outcroppings looked friable in the dying light. The bleached domes atop Blake’s Peak were still miles away from us, but as we drew nearer Beatrice and I were able to identify the different ones from the photograph and diagram I had brought along. Soon Venus and her lover Mars were visible in the lower east section of the sky. We felt as if we had entered a two-dimensional world, as if we would drive to the horizon at the mountain’s base and then sail clear off the edge.

And Beatrice: luminous, a saintly aura, ready to immerse her being into the night and the stars, fascinated with the two of us being here, by our joint adventure. In the moment she became the woman I’d first seen at Brainchild Scientific a half year ago, and the one who’d figured so large in my life since, the one I’d loved and probably still loved and who was carrying our child. Her demeanor was the same as when she had played with the Van de Graf Generator, with the optic wheels and stroboscope, rapt and wondrous, but now with the glow of pregnancy and maternity, albeit an early glow considering she was not that far along. She was a child and a mother and a teacher and a lover rolled into one. Her ethereal presence magnified the world.

“When I was younger,” she said, “my parents sometimes took us to the Shore for a few days, and one night my mother and I got far enough away from the boardwalk lights and crowds, from my sister and my father and my father’s family. My mother and I found a quiet place on the beach to lie down and we could see all these brilliant stars. While lying there on our blanket, my mother told me she was rarely happy, that she’d been unhappy for most of her life, but in that moment on the beach with me, looking up at the stars and hearing the rhythmic fall and hiss of the ocean surf, she valued that moment as one of her happiest and said she would always cherish the memory.”

I asked Beatrice if she was still close to her mother. She shook her head and said she’d tell me more about her family at a later time.

Our motel, the Caritas Motel was a non-descript but quaint and clean lodging in faux mission style: stucco walls, small paned windows, terra cotta roof, a palm tree beside a chain link fence that enclosed the swimming pool, a few tacky lawn ornaments including a blithely hospitable senor and senorita standing with their pack donkey. There were maybe eight to a dozen lodgers. The place looked adequate for our needs; we wouldn’t be spending much time here except to sleep. Beatrice and I checked into our separate rooms, washed up, and then regrouped for dinner at a nearby cantina.

As I was unpacking I idly wondered what Gladys might be doing. She had given me a decent send off, calm and civil, and while not overly excited about my trip, I still detected an expression of good will on her part. Gladys believed I was travelling to the Empyrean with a male co-worker, and I thought that maybe my travelling with a woman would not have made much difference to her. The dynamic of our home life had not changed a great deal in recent months—we mostly did our separate things—but Gladys no longer showed resentment toward me or berated me into feeling responsible for her personal happiness or boredom (she no longer seemed bored). And we’d watched a little TV together lately, possibly because I had relaxed my diligence toward constantly working in the home observatory. On one of those nights, while watching “Dallas” (a show I normally loathed), Gladys quickly blurted out, “you’re doing fine!” and we even hugged for a few minutes. I questioned what I may have done, or been doing, to be “doing fine” her comment was so random and out of the blue, but I decided to take the compliment at face value and keep my mouth shut. . . . There’d been no further move toward making love by either one of us, as if New Year’s had been a grand fluke or anomaly. However, the chains and yoke of tension, which had lingered in the air for many months, maybe years, had somehow miraculously dissipated following the act and remained that way in spite of there being no encore.

Around nine-o-clock we drove the pickup to Blake’s Peak and began our ascent, feeling the dip in temperature, a crystalline bite in the air as we gained altitude. The road to the Empyrean Observatory was a long upwards spiral of asphalt switchbacks on the mottled green hillside, like the “Ancient Stairway of the Seven Planets.” I recalled Jacob’s dream of the ladder joining earth and heaven, and our vertiginous climb to the summit of Blake’s Peak, with its crown of domes and telescopes, felt much like Jacob’s dream.

and behold a ladder set upon the earth and the top of it
reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending
and descending on it.

The road narrowed, leaving a jagged wall of outcrop above and below us, the drop more precipitous, a plummet into blackness and void. Beatrice gripped my arm and I tried to envision the face of her mother.

Adam Greenfield, one of the resident astronomers, was several years younger than me and a few inches shorter. He had dark hair and eyes to match— large, probing, and inquisitive. His enthusiasm for his work was infectious. Adam congratulated me on my discovery of Scorpius-429. He’d been excited since first reading about the discovery, particularly in light of the observational challenges Scorpius presented to astronomers in the northern hemisphere. I could see that Adam was charmed and smitten by lovely Beatrice, but I also sensed he assumed Beatrice and I were partners or at least sexually linked in some way.

“We get a large number of teachers and classes here,” he said. “Mostly at the secondary school and college level. It is truly wonderful to see kids blown away by these giant telescopes. At any given time I have somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen graduate students and interns helping me and Eve Atwater with our projects. And I’m impressed, Mr. Hale, that you build your own telescopes. Not unlike George Ellery Hale of Mount Wilson fame.”

“You flatter me, but there’s no relation.”

Greenfield laughed. An exuberant laugh.

“And I’m quite familiar with the Brainchild Scientific catalog. What a marvelous educational tool! Love the optics! You do a great service to science education. Now before I take you to meet my colleague Eve Atwater and tell you about the history of the Empyrean, I’ve planned the schedule so that we will be working in a different observatory with a different telescope each night. Regrettably the “Pride of the Empyrean,” the Primum Mobile, is under telescope time, meaning it is being used by an astronomy team from Sweden. But I promise that you will get to see it. I’ve gotten permission for an hour and plan on having you view a single object during that hour. Tonight we will be working with the 85-inch Cristallinum, no lightweight I should add. So, if your’re ready, let’s head on over there.”

Eve Atwater was as soft-spoken and reserved as Adam was manic. “Adam’s Rib” he jokingly called her, the humor of which she did not seem to entirely appreciate. Thin, angular, with ash blond hair and a pleasant but somewhat plain face, slightly unkempt in appearance, but a more tasteful disorder, she was after all a scientist, not a fashion model. Eve was seated at a computer console near the 85-inch Cristallinum telescope and for a few fleeting seconds I experienced vertigo, seeing the elongated barrel pitched forward that way, the angle strongly up and out, rising through the enormous gash that continued to retract as we lifted our eyes hypnotically to the coruscated panoply of stars. The dry silence of the desert was overwhelming. I sucked air into my lungs and realized several seconds later that I hadn’t exhaled, that I’d forgotten to breathe. I had been to a few other observatories back East but never one like this. And Eve appeared so casual, so insouciant, seated at the computer console near the 50-foot long scope. Her lack of amazement was unsettling at first until you remembered she was here almost every night, but still hard to imagine that the routine of being here, of working here, would ever cease to incite wonder. The giant Cristallinum telescope was the Serpent of Eden, tempting her nightly with the forbidden fruit of nebula, novae, and star clusters.

Then Adam related the history of the Empyrean Observatory, which housed the largest collection of optical telescopes in the world. The preliminary work had been done in the late 1950s after astronomers were given approval from the Indian tribe that owned the land. It was sacred land, “i’toi,” before being renamed Blake’s Peak. Legend had it that the tribal leaders were completely sold on the idea of an observatory only after being invited to the University of Arizona near their reservation and given the opportunity to peer through a 36-inch reflector telescope. The “Peak” was largely composed of pre-Cambrian Granite and able to withstand extreme shock; its lower slope covered in palo verde and nesemite, the higher elevations mostly Oak and Pinion Pine. In the early days of building there were numerous challenges and setbacks getting material up the mountain. The giant mirrors were manufactured in faraway locations like Berkeley, California, and Oregon, and Upstate New York at Corning Glass who had manufactured the colossal Primum Mobile lens in the late 1960s. The first dome housed a 36-inch reflector, similar to the one the tribal leaders gazed through. The 36-inch was followed by the Cristallinum, the second significant telescope also cast at Corning Glass, and while the observatory was officially opened to the public in 1960 it would be another four years before the Cristallinum was unveiled, fifty feet in length with a mirror seven-foot wide. But the Primum Mobile, the second largest optical telescope in the world, was considered the crowning achievement of The Empyrean. The dome itself, a brilliant accomplishment of engineering, weighed nearly 500 tons and housed not only the telescope and hardware but also offices, workshops, darkrooms and sleeping quarters for astronomers. It took three years to construct the disc which had followed an innovative method of using fused quartz. The barrel was 90-feet long! Another marvel of the complex was a solar vacuum telescope, built in 1973, which supported the Skylab mission in their observational work. Vase and several educational endowments have donated other telescopes over the years, including a radio telescope.

“We have a man-made lake—a reservoir, actually—that was built in the early to mid-60s because of the need for a sustainable water supply and has a capacity of a few millions gallons of water. The lake also serves as a recreation area for visiting and resident astronomers and staff. We have a store and an astronomy museum of course and also a Native American museum that showcases the history and culture of the local tribes.

“And I should also mention that the Empyrean has an excellent trained staff. Technicians maintain telescopes on a nightly basis and attend to hardware problems, make repairs, or address other requests made by astronomers that might fall outside of routine maintenance. The staff is trained in firefighting and first-aid because up here we are 50 miles from the nearest hospital or fire department. They can treat for minor injuries like rattlesnake bites or scorpion stings.

While Adam was speaking, Eve worked at the telescope control panel and computer console, entering coordinates.

“Why don’t we start with a planet of our solar system that’s become something of a clichéd symbol of Astronomy, despite how magnificent it always appears to us. Perfect timing, too, because the planet is at near elongation, 145 degrees from the sun.”

It was a thrill to see Saturn filling the field of the monitor and telescope, a smooth rounded white-yellow mesmerizing orb girded with bands of gaseous rings, possibly from a satellite unformed by the planet’s tidal pull. And still so many satellites! Far more moons discovered by now than on any other planet in our solar system: Rhea, Titan, Tethys, Lapetus, Phoebe, Pandora, to name a few. And the Cassini Division between Rings A and B appeared as sharp as if a blade had been inserted between them and sliced a circular channel between them.

“Why is it yellow?” Beatrice asked.

“Ammonia gas. The planet is so light and gaseous it would actually float on water.”

“What are the rings made of?”

“Ice crystals . . . Saturn also has extremely high winds, only second to Neptune in surface wind velocity.”

From Saturn we moved onto more rings, this time the Ring Nebula (NGC 6720 or Messier-57) in the constellation Lyra. Again the sheer size of the image felt daunting. At home the Ring Nebula had appeared to me as a life saver candy but here it loomed like a great spheroid ring, a hazy loop that you might be able to reach up and grab and touch the faint coal of the white dwarf star enfolded within.

“Not as diffuse or broken up like other nebulae,” Adam remarked. “Why do you think that is?”

“It’s a bipolar planetary nebula,” I said. “Dense mass along the dwarf’s equator most likely accounts for the approximate symmetry.”

“Correct, Soren. A large infusion — or better yet, ‘spume’ — in the final phase of the star’s passing from a red giant to a white dwarf. Ionized gas makes for those wild colors!”

Eve added that we would be seeing more nebulae over the course of the next few nights, such as the Veil Nebula, the Orion Nebula, and the Butterfly Nebula.

“Does it ever rain here?” Beatrice wondered aloud.

“Annual rainfall is quite high for the region (about 22 inches) but spring is the driest season, only a half inch of rain on average.”

“Next we observed the great spiral galaxy, NGC 4565 in Como Berenices, much in shape and size like our own.

Adam said, “That light is reaching us from 30 million years ago. Think of it: whatever is taking place in those star systems is 30 million years away from us.”

Beatrice asked how the age of stars and their distance is determined and I answered her about the Cepheid Variables and Eve expanded on the work of Edwin Hubble in determining stars’ distances and the age of the universe based on Cepheids.

Later we watched the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. One of several interesting facts about Castor and Pollux was how well they fit into the concept of being twins, appearing so close together when in fact the distance between them was vast. Pollux, an orange giant, is the brighter of the two and about ten times the size of our sun, though considerably smaller than Arcturus. The Geminids, a meteor shower normally occurring in December or January are located in the constellation near the twins. And Castor is made up of three binaries, at least of one of them an eclipsing binary like Burns and Allen, so when we observe Castor we are looking at six stars, not one, three pairs of twins within the mythological twins. Ever since Herschel we’ve seen that stars are more likely to be multiple systems, not isolated and singular.

“The nature of the observable deals in twins, or pairs,” said Adam.

Soon, like the boom on a crane, the Cristallinum telescope was lowered and pivoted away from the aperture which commenced to close. The elision of Heaven at two-o-clock in the morning was one of the saddest and most bittersweet visions I’d ever had in my life, as if you were losing one of your senses, or having a heightened sense abruptly snatched away from you.

“See you tomorrow, same time,” said Adam Greenfield. Eve waved goodbye.

As we descended Blake’s Peak, Beatrice and I talked incessantly about our first night in the Empyrean and what we had seen—Saturn, the Ring Nebula, the spiral galaxy NGC 4565, Castor and Pollux—but once we reached the highway, we remained in a mute trance for the entire drive back to the Caritas Motel. We were overcome with weariness that I attributed to the excitement of the day and then the ebbing of the adrenalin rush we’d experienced in the observatory. I wanted Beatrice more than ever. In the moment, driving back on the Arizona highway at 2:30 AM, I had an insane desire for her. She was gorgeous, but it was the mercurial nature of her mind, her elation, her child-like joy, that incited me to possess her. Before we parted at the Caritas, I kissed Beatrice on the cheek and then held her arm for several seconds, my gaze leaping from her brown to her blue eye.

“Not right now,” she said. “I badly need to get some sleep.”

“Me too,” I said, letting go of her arm and bidding her a good night.

We returned to our separate rooms.

Before falling asleep, I had a short dream or a series of random and disjointed images . . . Beatrice looking through the giant Cristallinum telescope with a black patch over one eye (could not tell if it was the blue or the brown). Then the telescope changed into a skyscraper turned on its side as if tipped over. Then Beatrice was facing me, but half of her face was light and the other half was in darkness and behind the half face that was veiled in darkness I saw a residential street from my town with a single lamp post and at the end of the street the constellation Scorpius sinuated above a meadow, the whole scene lighted as if it were a stage set. I then saw the light half of Beatrice’s face, was in flames, or more accurately this half of her face had become a fire, burning steadily, a commingling of hearth contentment and aching need.

“Were I to smile,” she said “You would be turned to ash . . . because my beauty, which, as it goes higher from step to step of the eternal palace, burns, as you know, with ever brighter fire . . .”

I wanted to keep a diary to record our nights at the observatory (the days too, but especially the nights) and our drive across America. Unfortunately I haven’t written much about the drive out here and I think that part of the reason is because I’ve been so excited and alert, watching everything from the car and hardly resting at all. I can thank Soren for this wonderful experience; he’s been generous (not to mention calm and patient in putting up with me!) I think he now has a better understanding of us and I’m grateful that he has warm and friendly feelings toward Laura, and that he cares for Laura as a co-worker even if he is technically her boss.

Tonight we’re going to meet Adam and Eve! How absurd that sounds, but that is their names, and Virgil somehow knew their names—also a bizarre coincidence—though we never discovered how Virgil had come by that bit of information . . . I stare at this intricate and intensely beautiful bracelet on my wrist, at its gods and totems and songs and seasons, and believe it’s a symbolic link in the chain between my past and my future. And yet there is only the Present.

Last night, driving across the Great Plains, across the Texas Panhandle, I had something like an out of body experience. I may have dozed off for a few minutes, but being in the middle of nowhere, in a moving vehicle, at 3:00 in the morning, I became completely disoriented, as if I was suspended somewhere in space and drifting through the night, leaving my body to merge with the endless landscape. I truly felt disembodied for maybe half a minute, and I wondered if my baby came along with me when I left my body or stayed tethered by the umbilical cord, tied to the mother ship, while I traversed a small sector of the astral plane. But more likely he or she joined me and both our bodies—the cashew or tiny shrimp that would eventually become her body—stayed anchored of course on prairie earth while our spirits blew through the big western night like a pair of joined milkweed thistles.

And then the white dove at sunrise on the desert, flying above our heads. And then the roadside stand, Virgil, and the bracelet. . . .

The domes of the Empyrean Observatory appeared shortly before sunset, high above the mesa, blunt rotund spires, exotic mushrooms, their white skins like an alien fortress on a red planet. The world dissolved into a vast lake of fire; rock and outcroppings looked friable in the dying light. The bleached domes atop Blake’s Peak were still miles away from us, but as we drew nearer Beatrice and I were able to identify the different ones from the photograph and diagram I had brought along. Soon Venus and her lover Mars were visible in the lower east section of the sky. We felt as if we had entered a two-dimensional world, as if we would drive to the horizon at the mountain’s base and then sail clear off the edge.

And Beatrice: luminous, a saintly aura, ready to immerse her being into the night and the stars, fascinated with the two of us being here, by our joint adventure. In the moment she became the woman I’d first seen at Brainchild Scientific half a year ago, and the one who’d figured so large in my life since, the one I’d loved and probably still loved and who was carrying our child. Her demeanor was the same as when she had played with the Van de Graf Generator, with the optic wheels and stroboscope, rapt and wondrous, but now with the glow of pregnancy and maternity, albeit an early glow considering she was not that far along. She was a child and a mother and a teacher and a lover rolled into one. Her ethereal presence magnified the world.

“When I was younger,” she said, “my parents sometimes took us to the Shore for a few days, and one night my mother and I got far enough away from the boardwalk lights and crowds, from my sister and my father and my father’s family. My mother and I found a quiet place on the beach to lie down and we could see all these brilliant stars. While lying there on our blanket, my mother told me she was rarely happy, that she’d been unhappy for most of her life, but in that moment on the beach with me, looking up at the stars and hearing the rhythmic fall and hiss of the ocean surf, she valued that moment as one her happiest and said she would always cherish the memory.”

I asked Beatrice if she was still close to her mother. She shook her head and said she’d tell me more about her family at a later time.

Our motel, the Caritas Motel was a non-descript but quaint and clean lodging in faux mission style: stucco walls, small paned windows, terra cotta roof, a palm tree beside a chain link fence that enclosed the swimming pool, a few tacky lawn ornaments including a blithely hospitable senor and senorita standing with their pack donkey. There were maybe eight to a dozen lodgers. The place looked adequate for our needs; we wouldn’t be spending much time here except to sleep. Beatrice and I checked into our separate rooms, washed up, and then regrouped for dinner at a nearby cantina.

As I was unpacking I idly wondered what Gladys might be doing. She had given me a decent send off, calm and civil, and while not overly excited about my trip, I still detected an expression of good will on her part. Gladys believed I was travelling to the Empyrean with a male co-worker, and I thought that maybe my travelling with a woman would not have made much difference to her. The dynamic of our home life had not changed a great deal in recent months—we mostly did our separate things—but Gladys no longer showed resentment toward me or berated me into feeling responsible for her personal happiness or boredom (she no longer seemed bored). And we’d watched a little TV together lately, possibly because I had relaxed my diligence toward constantly working in the home observatory. On one of those nights, while watching “Dallas” (a show I normally loathed), Gladys quickly blurted out, “you’re doing fine!” and we even hugged for a few minutes. I questioned what I may have done, or been doing, to be “doing fine” her comment was so random and out of the blue, but I decided to take the compliment at face value and keep my mouth shut. . . . There’d been no further move toward making love by either one of us, as if New Year’s had been a grand fluke or anomaly. However, the chains and yoke of tension, which had lingered in the air for many months, somehow miraculously dissipated following the act and had remained that way in spite of there being no encore.

Around nine-o-clock we drove the pickup to Blake’s Peak and began our ascent, feeling the dip in temperature, a crystalline bite in the air as we gained altitude. The road to the Empyrean Observatory was a long upwards spiral of asphalt switchbacks on the mottled green hillside, like the “Ancient Stairway of the Seven Planets.” I recalled Jacob’s dream of the ladder joining earth and heaven, and our vertiginous climb to the summit of Blake’s Peak, with its crown of domes and telescopes, felt much like Jacob’s dream.

. . . and behold a ladder set upon the earth and the top of it reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

The road narrowed, leaving a jagged wall of outcrop above and below us, the drop more precipitous, a plummet into blackness and void. Beatrice gripped my hand in hers and I tried to envision the face of her mother.

Adam Greenfield, one of the resident astronomers, was several years younger than me and a few inches shorter. He had dark hair and eyes to match— large, probing, and inquisitive. His enthusiasm for his work was infectious. Adam congratulated me on my discovery of Scorpius-429. He’d been excited since first reading about the discovery, particularly in light of the observational challenges Scorpius presented to astronomers in the northern hemisphere. I could see that Adam was charmed and smitten by lovely Beatrice, but I also sensed he assumed Beatrice and I were partners or at least sexually linked in some way.

“We get a large number of teachers and classes here,” he said. “Mostly at the secondary school and college level. It is truly wonderful to see students blown away by these giant telescopes. At any given time I have somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen graduate students and interns helping me and Eve Atwater with our projects. And I’m impressed, Mr. Hale, that you build your own telescopes, not unlike George Ellery Hale of Mount Wilson fame.”

“You flatter me, but there’s no relation.”

Greenfield laughed. An exuberant laugh.

“And I’m quite familiar with the Brainchild Scientific catalog. What a marvelous educational tool. Love the optics! You do a great service to science education. Now before I take you to meet my colleague Eve Atwater and tell you about the history of the Empyrean, I’ve planned the schedule so that we will be working in a different observatory with a different telescope each night. Regrettably the “Pride of the Empyrean,” the Primum Mobile, is under telescope time, meaning it is being used by an astronomy team from Sweden. But I promise that you will get to see it. I’ve gotten permission for an hour and plan on having you view a single object during that hour. Tonight we will be working with the
85-inch Cristallinum. So, if you are ready, let’s head on over there.”

Eve Atwater was as soft-spoken and reserved as Adam was manic. “Adam’s Rib” he jokingly called her, the humor of which she did not seem to entirely appreciate. Thin, angular, with ash blond hair and a pleasant but somewhat plain face, slightly unkempt in appearance, but a more tasteful disorder, she was after all a scientist, not a fashion model. Eve was seated at a computer console near the 85-inch Cristallinum telescope and for a few fleeting seconds I experienced vertigo, seeing the elongated barrel pitched forward that way, the angle strongly up and out, rising through the enormous gash that continued to retract as we lifted our eyes hypnotically to the coruscated panoply of stars. The dry silence of the desert was overwhelming. I sucked air into my lungs and realized several seconds later that I hadn’t exhaled, that I’d forgotten to breathe. I had been to a few other observatories back East but never one like this. And Eve appeared so casual, so insouciant, seated at the computer console near the 50-foot long scope. Her lack of amazement was unsettling at first until you remembered she was here almost every night, but still hard to imagine that the routine of being here, of working here, would ever cease to incite wonder. The giant Cristallinum telescope was the Serpent of Eden, tempting her nightly with the forbidden fruit of nebula, novae, and star clusters.