< He removed the plastic fork artfully from a Styrofoam cup of corn chowder and ditched an impulse to count the number of kernels; with a slight hitch, he placed it noiselessly, quite perfectly, on a folded napkin. “The beyond is truly a marvel,” he said. “First I want to know where am I going?’
“Where am I going?” repeated Aji. There was a slight drop of her chin, and her forehead relaxed.
“I feel like one of the horses,” he said, with as stir of resolution. They were sitting a blue picnic table on the ocean deck of a Florida seafood restaurant. It was the off-season; they were alone with the occasional nip of sea winds, and strong gusts of salt air, the sky overcast.
He said, “The city, people, the world? It wants all of the horses in the lake.”
“It’s hard to see from there,” she smiled.
Aji mixed the clams, and potatoes in her chowder. He absolved the homey image of clams. “It’s really – it’s kind of a pity,” she said, pausing. “I’m really ridiculously older than you, or anyone else here. It’s not worse than I imagined it might be, but it’s not a lot better. I underestimated my sense of empathy. The instinct to caution, yes, to blab about the future. Earth. Sometimes overwhelming.”
He coaxed his seafood. “Shall I say, is it man? No. One of a man’s great questions? No. Our questions. Better. Why not slosh around in the lake, and not cause a problem. Conform. But you must – you must reach the other side. Or you’ll drown. And it won’t let you. We end up in the lake.”
“You mean, the hospital?” she puzzled. “You were getting somewhere. Before that.”
He breathed and fixed his eyes on the wetland marsh near the restaurant. “I hadn’t thought of that. Right. Now the hospital. Back in the lake.” Her voice trailed away in an unspoken silence.
“When I feel that way, yes, buried,” said Aji. “I think I find out I was wrong. You can be wrong.”
Joe noticed a spring of sweat rolling from his temple, but persisted in the striking of stakes for the tent with a tack hammer, and the construction of a mosquito shelter. The chore was more arduous in the days after graduate school for the three-man hiatus to honor mountain whiskey, virtually impossible for him if they had invited friends, or family. There was the ten-day sojourn ending with Memorial Day at a New Hampshire lake, Pawtuckaway; and the July 4 decamp, presently, a matter of but three days in Florida, situated at a camp concealed by an enormous flea market. These holidays gave Joe to avail a fetish penchant – the quest for vinyl forty-fives, or 45’s, by musical acts before nineteen-eighty, or so; the single releases with “flip-sides”were produced, and released by artists before the creation of “eight-tracks,” and cassettes had made them obsolete. The only other prerequisite of the vacation was The Rule, a rule, generally and easily violated, whereby the only source of liquid was mountain whiskey; if one complained, which had yet never happened, except, occasionally, by relatives, throughout three decades, they were invited to unproverbially jump in the lake, and scare water from one of Florida’s gators.
This narrator, N, wheeled his vintage Jeep into the narrow gravel roadways of the Florida campsite, and spotted their site marker, a copper cap. He rolled the heavy tires over tree roots and boulders into the site, and stopped noticeably to gaze at the magnificent mirror of the lake water seemingly touched only by the sun; the tree line was reflected in the mirror, and framed the reference for the trio, now employed as members of the faculty of New York University, or NYU. He was a lecturer. Another,Milt, was a professor of Humanities; Joe was an undergraduate professor of economics, and an assistant soccer coach. They had placed the copper cap for him, as he was always the last one to arrive, the two proceeded to stake the camp, and Milt mulled the crumbling blocks of granite hoping to become a fire place. None had begun the chief fare of their whiskey destitution, settling the tangents of world affairs by a doctoral shorthand consisting of summary conclusion, and thus sparing baccalaureates from a canoe savored for quixotic adventures, the camp fire, for primes-rib, and a tented picnic table, purposed only for Queens. Hardly warmed-up, Milt observed, “The fire pit is a mess.” He condoned the mordant state of his mental agility within the rules of advanced education; their kinship was based upon humility, a mortal cadence sought in their eyes, and visible in their aging demeanor: There was no fire.
Joe’s pilgrimage to Florida for July Fourth had begun a day early, it was learned, with extra time devoted to the Flea Market. He reported the latest treasure – Mike Post’s theme from the television series, Magnum P.I.. “They never brought that out in a 45, did they?” Milt sparred. “Never happened.”
Flatly, with a note of grave finality, like a youth cradling a hamster, Joe said, “Wrong.”
He admired them, independently, his heart surging about the weekend, dropped his backpack, and unloaded bags of groceries from the Jeep, to their wincing curiosity. “Robert Palmer!”
Joe was captured by the inquiry, and his eyes rolled several times in his head. He replied, abstractly. “No. No Robert Palmer.”
“Hah,” Milt offered, triumphantly. “Nineteen-eighties! He never made a 45.” He addled, “Some Casey Kasem. When he finds the theme from Rockford Files, then he’s got something.”
Joe: Doot, dada doot, dada doot, dada doot, dada dee do.
Milt: Wee yew, wee yew, wee ah wee ah wee yew yew.
Theme | “Rockford Files,” theme, Mike Post, 1975; “Flea Markets, No. 14” | playlist, nos. 1-15
Theme, Rockford Files, (Mike Post, 1975)
His muscles tensed, adding the necessary girth to the task of a grouper taco, his first grouper entree, as it’s not native to New York, or the northeast, guarding against lettuce, and tomatoes inclined to tumble onto his fleece jacket. “I think about this Adorjan, the one you’re here to find?” he opted. “I just, I can’t help but think about this guy, the Bear guy. I don’t know his name. I forget. He spent year after year in the same wildlife area, friending the bears. Camping for, I think it was summer months, alone. In the end, he was devoured by one of the bears. He was consumed by it, quite literally.”
Aji continued, less amused. “I watch you, and I learn how you live. So many things. I am bound, you know, by international law. You ask, ‘Where am I going?’ It would be easy to discover. Maybe I already know. But if I don’t like it, yes. If there was some way to help. It’s what I meant.”
He tipped the taco sandwich to one side cavalierly, and then to the other, before resolving, “Never mind.”
She set the empty Styrofoam cup a pace before her, and straightened to gaze at the ocean, and the dessert bar. Aji said, “There is much more space between us than this table. Sombrero, for instance, is not just a long way from here: It is a long time from here. The technical phrase for it is ‘the age of the universe.’ There are many adventures, many calamities … on this table, the time between us, you and I.”
“The age of the universe,” he said, and tapped the picnic table with his thumbs. “We can only see what it was like billions of years ago, which implies may be entirely different today. Sort of a paradox.”
Aji said, curtly, “You’re talking about the observable universe. I’m from Sombrero.”
She repaired dolefully before his final lunge at the grouper taco. “Does Sombrero have grouper? I’m synced to haddock. Good New York haddock. I’m waiting for it to get awful.”
Aji frowned, expansively, “I should say, I told you, or I allowed you to believe, that Sombrero, and Lazarus Taxa are located at the very edge of the universe. Perhaps I misled you. I was not entirely truthful. I’m sorry, of course. We both live in the same cluster, situated in the midst of this universe. I had to test your depth.”
“I should be pleased,” he replied, sheepishly. “One question, you know, is before we get into a tour of the galaxies. How did you get here?”
She vexed. “I don’t think you realize how cynical that is. Where am I going? How did I get here? I think you don’t realize it.”
“Every hint, every breath, every urge matters,” she claimed. “Sombrero could be the edge of the universe. Maybe it’s that marsh.”
He said, ”That’s where you are wrong. It makes no difference.”
She spoke his name, and said, “I could extol for you about the wonder of pioneer species, and you would benefit; or what great strides science has achieved in this — meantime. We’re still people, however, yes. My family’s ancestors lived on Earth, and they‘re still part of Earth. Their ashes, mass, never disappears. The Legion won’t permit me to add, or subtract from any of the levels of knowledge, or experience at any given time, or space, or place. I can be, what is that movie, an Accidental Tourist. That I regret. I must constantly refrain. I want to say, normally, I want talk, about growing up at Sombrero, about my own youth, to describe the beauty of Saturn to you, as a colony, a vacation paradise, and the moons where the oceans are salmon under a coral sky.”
“Orange,” he said, allowing a grin. “This is Florida.”
He was resting next to the window, and Maurice next to the door, which would require debate before a final treaty. Maurice said he was glad to be near the med entrance, near “emergency people.” Maurice said, “A mere second could be critical,” and yawned, a yawn which engulfed much of his entire body, curved him toward the wall, and carried him off to sleep, seemingly in a single motion.
He could tell by the fresh scent of mango the nurses’ staff had barred entry into the room, and curtailed visiting hours. He thought people should know the staff changed the rules. Mare generally arrived shortly after visiting hours, causing him to roll towards the window with alarm. Hospitals have an elemental smell, either linoleum, or aluminum, and also mango. His stay was now six days, but the mental calendar in a patient’s mind can bounce with the image of days, and not actual days; days are tests, doctor’s visits, diagnoses, old, but never new. His eyes closed. Mare was tormenting his roommate. Maurice’s voice was strained, and scratchy, and he wouldn’t clear his throat. Maurice wrestled the bedsheet away from her, — she had snapped it up, — and pronounced, “Don’t want candy. Don’t want magazines. No candy. No magazines.”
Reluctantly, Mare skipped from the room upon the ornery appearance of the charge nurse, whose eyes were spacious, and all-seeing, captivated by any sign of life. There were few in the room. Both patients expected action at any moment, not as much as minutes, and it was days; happily, neither knew what action might presume, and imply. He continued to hide from Mare. He heard Maurice proclaim, “Go away,” but the charge nurse didn’t budge from their doorway. He opened one eye, and said, “I thought it was that candy striper.“
“What’s the password?” the nurse humored, brightly.
“Go away,” he grumbled.
“I see somebody isn’t very good-natured today,” the nurse shouted, or it seemed like a shout, in New York, it was a shout, but it was far too loud, and way too broad. He rolled to express his offense. This was a hospital; everything was serious. The nurse had whispered.
“Arrgh!” Maurice growled, and began dueling his blankets. “Dammit.”
He now knew why the nurse had arrived, — a “talisperson” for the scheduled battery of Gastro-Enterology. Maurice dangled profoundly blotched, scarred legs over the bed side, wishing he had a moustache to twirl.
“I was never good-natured,” Maurice replied to the nurse. “He’s good natured. He’s got the window.”
“This is not an airplane, Maurice, there’s no paid seating arrangement,” the nurse smiled, surveying the building, and the cross façade. “Would Maurice like the window?”
Aji said, in Florida, “It was dreadfully easy to get here, to Earth.”
He quipped, “I’m dying to see the rental car.”
“I did drive from Saturn, after a relay, or so. The Metro. Ah. Love Saturn.”
“You drove,” he repeated.
“Per se. Aeronautics. Engineering. I can’t really say.”
“You have a pod.”
“Okay, a pod, yes,” Aji said, still reticent. “I guess I can say I have two brothers. I have a fifteen-year old sister. This is like, how do I say it? Earth is like…France, or Greece, or Ireland or Italy. It hurts my eyes to see these beautiful azure blues on Earth. They seem unnatural, and I’m suspicious. It’s a mother planet. All Right. I’ll just be glad to get back to normal, to where I went to grade school, where nights are beige, and the breakers are amber; where lightning is the only remaining cause of death.”
“Really,” he said. “But for some reason, you have to find this Adorjan guy.”
She tapped the cup of Styrofoam on the table. “Partly,” Aji tasked. “The Cassini-Huygens probe was done recently, in the late twentieth century. They explored Saturn, and part of the Milky Way. Both are part of Virgo. The Milky Way, Sombrero. There is much more to discover about Saturn. It is a most brilliant, and awfully tenuous planet. Huygens landed on Titan. Voyager got photographs. Mmm. Enceladus. I had to tell you about Coda. Possibly, I need to tell you about Enceladus.”
“Enceladus,” Aji said. “If you take it seriously.”
“I’ve heard of Cassini.”
Aji continued, “One of the Cassini researchers was Carl Murray. He studied a new moon forming within the bright shadow it cast on the A-Ring of Saturn. Objects can take millions of years to shape. It could become a new moon, like Titan. It may be absorbed by the ring of stones, and debris. Murray christened it for his mother-in-law, of all things. It became known as ‘a bump named Peggy.’”
“Or simply Peggy.”
Aji stated, “People are enthralled by the births of objects in space, because it is always majestic. We need, I say we need to be more careful. The shadows on Saturn alone. These have been easily dismissed as dark reflections. (Pause.) You know, what you said about Adorjan was exactly hurtful. Fortunately, it shows you have a useful — sensitivity.”
“No,” he cajoled.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, and began to laugh.
Aji said, “In a great many of the shadows about Saturn, in the laboratory after one of Adorjan’s explorations, these shadows contained a large degree of carbon, particularly ones found in the mines, the ‘reflections,’ found in Saturn’s rings. The carbon levels implied to many these shadows were actually remnants.”
“Remnants,” he said. “Re- “
“Yes, remains,” she interjected. “Of course, this was squashed. And they won’t explore. But –”
“— there’s still the problem.”
She said, “It’s just, this could imply many other things, too. It may tell us more about dark matter.”
“A foolish consistency,” he quoted.
Aji fretted, “That’s what I say. Dark matter. You know, I am not ‘a bump named Peggy.’” ◊
Theme | “Storms,” Fleetwood Mac; “Flea Markets, No. 15” | playlist, nos. 1-18
“The Shadows” is one of three works by SODA TOM.
“The Shadows,” by Soda Tom, Vol. I of III,
from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories
Copyright (C), 2018; 2017, ff., by the author.
All Rights Reserved.
Created by Soda Tom