“The influence of Saturn is the most lasting and malignant of all planets. Mars may be compared to a fever… while Saturn resembles a temblor, a consumption.”
Degrees of effort, degrees of elevation: Seething resentment fanned into throbbing parietal rage as I tore up Broadway, ears ringing high mass over snowmelt-surging Boulder Creek, past priced-out storefronts once home to carobesque, ideologically pristine little haunts I seldom frequented yet somehow sorely missed. Where the hell was the old Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics when a body needed it? I turned heedlessly up Arapahoe—cranking down windows, Seamus banging rock-hard against the station wagon’s rear sidewall, then ricocheting up to the driver’s seat, what with the rear jumpseat being habitually folded under.
“Get back there, dogmeat!” I veered suddenly curbside, before a humming realty office, smack where my favorite grainy co-op used to be. I head locked the face-licking Setter, twisting Seamus’s neck, biting the dog’s crusted left ear, drawing a blood spray before thrusting his howling 45-pound frame rearward against the tailgate. “Get back there,” I screamed, “go makin’ a horse’s ass out of me…”
Seamus whimpered painfully, but stayed the distance—Irish Setters being crazy, not stupid. This morning had started routinely enough: I’d taken him up for some sunrise exercise, past the Turnpike vista point before school—cutting it close, but with the knowledge that any resulting time press schedule-wise paled by comparison with a Setter 24 hours unrun. The plan was to cruise along a gravel ridge road overlooking Boulder Valley and its full Rocky Mountain backdrop, albeit with the nagging notion that I could have stood some jogging myself.
The dog would eat my squareback’s dust at a 25 m.p.h. clip, sprinting himself silly enough to be essentially comatose until morning next. Except for today, of all days, the Setter strayed. Just as I slowed, calling him in—zam, he was off into a horse pasture, rolling around in a dung heap, rubbing it in real good—ears, feathering, everywhere. And I’d just scrubbed him down day two days before.
I had toweled Seamus off some, but didn’t have enough time to take him home. Thus I was forced to leave him stew in the student parking lot, vent windows cracked. Still, a couple of hours really fried everything, with that sun-broiled little McKyle’s’ pit stop only magnifying the Squareback’s equine stink. There had been no escaping it. Even amid Cross’s questions, Seamus was this long titian blur across my field of vision, mad dog bounding over the hilltops, tail dragging sorely between his legs: Fractured coccygeal vertebrae, fifth caudal segment, crushing hemal arches, chipping the articular and mammillary processes, vet’s bill painful all the more.
I’d even shamefully, disjointedly blurted that sorry diagnosis between Spearman’s rho and Kendall’s tau. So now I shuddered, slapping fiercely at my right temple, then cut left up 7th Street, well into the foothills—this endearingly grubstake corner of old Boulder roughly mountain cradled from Chautauqua and Baseline north to the deep, damp slit into Boulder Canyon. Tight, cottage-lined streets stuffed their way up against the greenbelt like a throw rug beneath a drafty door. From there up, the foothills and Front Range reigned au naturel, making these heaped together little houses precious far beyond their material worth.
Snow lingered long on University Hill’s upper- most streets, drifted into leaf-packed gullies and trail beds, tufted between wind-gnarled trees and bushes coolly shaded by the Front Range wall, thrusting abruptly skyward a short block or so away. This near the greenbelt, small was beautiful by public decree: cabins, squatter shacks, in some cases, glorified sheds were being restored, contemporized, only modestly built out as space and City Hall permitted. You yielded to bounds established when these odd lots were pick-ax mining claims; the pay-off was a backyard of lodgepole pine and snow-capped splendor stretching to Rifle and Durango.
While this climb cleared my sinuses, the ringing wouldn’t cease, my whole head blowing up like Jiffy Pop. A sharp pain crackled across my forehead—cranial muscles tightening with torque wrench force, fronto-insular cortex pressure—sudden shakes and tremors I had never, ever felt before. Plowing through jellied snowmelt, I notched each street and bell toll incrementally deeper into the steering wheel, until my thumbnails bruised and knuckles ached and the top of my head began steaming like the sun off rushing neighborhood creeklets.
All because I couldn’t seem to reconcile revolving grudges about the unevenness of my playing field: merit vs. moneyclip, the monetocracy always trumped—about out-of-state Porsche roadsters, ‘Happiness Is Owning The Means Of Production’ bumperstickers, and my fetid litter box of a Volkswagen misfiring badly onto Fir Drive.
Sure as shit they were all richer, could they have been smarter, too? Much as I loved Boulder, I couldn’t shake the painful synapses up here, atop The Hill, lording over the valley and beyond. ‘Twas a privilege to live in Colorado, all right—revocable at any time. And for some reason, I was growing more and more anxious about cooling my heels in Boulder’s academic waiting room. His snout out the side vent, ears flapping in the breeze, Seamus’s incessant tail banging only steamed me that much more. What is this? This isn’t me, at least the me that’s supposed to be…
I slid to a stop in front of 519 Cliff, splashing slush and gravel toward a peak-roofed former miner’s cabin with a lazy porch swing that faced the frontal peaks like third row center in an IMAX theatre. It was Jeremiah Hapgood’splace in 1861, still said so above the door, and had taken on a tiny room or two and even tinier barn wood outbuildings over the years. The yellow-brown shake cabin had two tall, narrow window cases looking out toward Flagstaff Summit, and a crooked brick chimney sending white smoke streams up through the overhang of a 150 year-old elm tree. Seamus yelped and clawed out the nearest half-cranked car window, to the relief of all but a scattering of ground squirrels.
“Sorry about the…ouch!” I tossed the Setter some stale Milk-Bones, then hit my head on an icicle cluster dripping crystalline from the low, slanted porch roof.
“Kenny?! Oops, better go, Syd…but, oh, hearing your voice, you don’t know. Me, too…see you tomorrow. Be safe, byebs…Kenny, how’d we do?”
“I’m out,” I snapped, brushing off my clothes, as I stumbled through the front door, catching the plaited scent of musk and burned pine. “I’m blown off and sent packing…”
“Wantz to hear all about it!” Melissa ‘Moon’ Saversohn, housemate, beamed at me and dropped the phone. “Big thing is, you’re out. Now we’re reallycookin’…” She rushed toward me, small and delicate, yet strategically turned, her very presence begging preclusive embrace. But she suddenly stopped cold to crack a parlor window. “Oh, not again…I do hope you wiped your feet.”
“This morning yet, right before orals.” I stomped snow and worse onto the cabin’s hardwood floor, then motioned menacingly out to the yard. “Setters are lunatics, I tell you. And I don’t care what the vet says, he’s not doing it to mask his scent, he does it just to spite me! I could have killed him…”
“Kenny, you didn’t,” she checked the side window for signs of life, Seamus darting and digging and banging away. “Tsk, why do you still take him anywhere near those pastures? He’s a hunting dog, you know he’s gonna roll in it by nature. Whew, if you went to class like that, they probably couldn’t wait to sign you out.”
“Booted out’s more like it,” I kvetched, catching another whiff, up close and personal, as if downwind of a Porta-Potty dumper truck. “They say they haven’t made any decisions about the fall, but it turns out they have made their damn decisions—courtesy of Grammersly and Verniere.
“But you’ve been doing so well.” She angled for some safe approach, finally tiptoeing to hug and kiss me, fresh smock or no. “You say Grammersly…and who?”
“Paul Verniere,” I quick released her for closer scrutiny. “You know, at the graduate Christmas party. He says he remembers you…”
“Oooh, of course…from San Francisco, nice enough guy…”
“He’s a departmental weasel.”
“Hmm, come to think of it, I think he was kindacomin’on to me a little,” she fled back into oven-warmed kitchen, waft with the natural sweetness of scratch baking. “Sorta over-the-line strange for my tastes. Great car, though…”
“Aww, he’s aready beat it to hell,” I ripped through the morning’s mail for anything marked university business, coming up with the first notice on my student loans. “The latest is Cross has already handed him a doctoral slot, gift wrapped and guaranteed.”
“And how do we know this,” she asked, returning with a plate of maple-frosted squares.
“Verniere just told me so himself, over at McKyle’s.” I devoured two corner slices as though they were iced with Demerol. “Then he had the gall to pick my brain about orals….”
“So maybe he was just running his gums…” This, her generic term for redlining one’s mouth with the clutch quite disengaged. “ He is a semester behind you, isn’t he? And you said yourself word’s not due for another month. See, this is all in your cabanza again…”
“Yeah maybe, but I never said he was a class behind…” I gazed out upon the still snow-strated Flatirons, spirits sinking with the sun. My eye cast about the parlor at collages of framed pictures—a trail of distant continental images, with no avenue of escape.
“Um…guess he must have told me at that party,” she set aside the tray and moved toward the embering fireplace. “Anyway, didn’t we say no more laying blame on other people? New Year’s resolution? And we’ve got to get a grip on this crazy competition thing of yours. Everything’s been going along just fine, Kenny, we’ve got it socked here in eden. This is just you thinking too much. Now, how about a little celebration for once…let’s just flow with it.”
“I suppose,” I heaved hard, ringing out, as though she held her nail-nubbed finger firmly on what infrequently passed for my safety valve.
“Oh, and speaking of San Francisco, guess who you finally get to meet?” Thus relieved, she rocked back on red wool socks and beaded moccasins. Hill-bent sunlight skewed in from just above Flagstaff Summit, rose tinting the high dusty ceiling, torching a Circaean oil portrait of herself above the mantle, strikingly headstrong against a meadow of wild fescueand oleander, riding a magic mandarin orange comforter, thick brown hair spilling down winsomely to her waist.
‘Waif and Grain’ variously moved and embarrassed her to tears, as though it were a persona she’d never known, could never hope to be, a persona on loan from the heavens. It was the undeniable fulcrum to an otherwise tidy, garage sale variety décor. “She’s been upcountry skiing over the holidays…coming in tomorrow morning.”
“Moon, please, no houseguests…” To this day, I shuddered each time the painting snatched my eye. I was loath to acknowledge it—less because of style than actual substance. ‘Waif’ was someone else’s Melissa, earth mother as centerfold, a personal loan I was fully prepared to square away. Still, on occasion the unfading promise of the portrait stirred me more than the earth itself. “I’ve had enough Frisco for one day.”
“This is Sydney, remember—family,” she insisted, slide stepping toward him with the bakery tray. “She won’t be staying here, anyway. She’s got other people in Boulder, you know. In fact, she’s already planned something special for us to go to. Kenny, where are you…”
“Company’s coming,” I muttered, wolfing down another maple square, turning for the door. “Best go out and hose everything down…”