Chapter 4

“Saturn forces you to finally
cut all this childish crap
and man the boat.”  

       “When Thou sendest him away, Thou dost contend with him.”

        “This is a blessing before he reads the Haftarah, from the book of the prophets…”

        “Blessed oh Lord, our G_d…Who has relieved us of responsibility for this boy.”

        “Says right here in the program.  See, the Haftarah follows the Torah…the Torah’s the Law in our world.”

         As best I can recollect how this all went down, Sydney Mendel had blown in from Telluride via Aspen well behind schedule, the trailing wind of an abrupt change in weather that had dusted the Rockies’ Front Range with two to four more inches of overnight powder, and snarled Stapleton Airport traffic for miles and hours.  My charge—with Melissa’s backseat guidance—was to return the three of us to Boulder via U.S.36 before the morning slid away.  Syd’s excess luggage strained baggage claim.  Her mood ranged from stormy to frantic to rapt, depending upon stop-and-go progress toward her special visitational surprise: a distant cousin’s only son’s bar mitzvah, which the partially plowed turnpike delivered us unto with precious few minutes to spare.  My best hope had been to sit by with the Toyota’s motor running, these holy recitations drowned out by some old eight-track Buddy Miles.  But there would be no such salvation, Sydney being Moon’s former sister-in-law, this being Melissa’s car, if not her surprisingly uneasy reckoning.

 Flatirons in winter.

            “I’m still trying to figure out what’s that black thing all strapped around the kid’s head and arm,” I shifted bun to bun on the polished wooden bench.

            “Tsk, that thing is his prayer tefillin, professor,” Sydney replied sternly. “Those little leather boxes bound onto his head and arm contain Shema and other biblical passages, to harness his intellect, emotions and actions in service of G_d. Wearing it and reading from the Torah’s all part of how he officially becomes a man—see, donning the tefillin, the whole glorious ceremony, bestows upon Aaron the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.”

            “Hey, sorry…but it’s not like I’ve ever been in one of these places before, I caved, “it’s not exactly my area of…expertise.”

            Sydney’s special surprise had taken us to Boulder’s then southeastern fringe at the time. At the time, El-Bethel was a small, white brick solid temple standing its relatively level ground amid a rolling mesa crop of protestant prim ranch houses and mid-rise college dorms, several blocks removed from turnpike’s end.  Inside, the temple exuded an air of solemn strength and implacable unity greatly beyond its physical dimension—a synagogue growing stronger and fuller, more resolute by the day, devoted to casting a much larger imprint on the community at large.

            Pews, window coverings, walls and woodwork were uniformly beige, shades of a junior high school auditorium or so.  Yet singularly radiant was the pulpit-crowning Ark—a broad, miter-arched, inlaid gold repository harboring the Law of Tefillin, its outer surface venerating God’s kinship and the Exodus from Egypt in colorful mosaic panels.  Before the Ark and a tall brass menorah stood El-Bethel’s teddy bearish, sparsely bearded rabbi, and a pubescently fleshy youth who had just wrestled mightily with, and read from, the Torah scroll, one arm all but tied to his side.

            “This is a happy day for me, the happiest day of my life,” Aaron Kavalla closed a hand-tooled Haftarah cover, smiling toward the  community cantor just finishing ‘Avodat Hakodesh’.  Once Rabbi Hirshhorn, who’d guided through the tefillin and prayers, handed Aaron his seudat cup, the bar mitzvah boy stepped bashfully beside the red velvet-draped bimah to unfold a yellow tablet sheet and spread it across a small podium.

             “He’s a rat,” Sydney hissed. “Thats what he is.

             “I have now passed from the world of childhood to manhood.  I can bear the holy burden of our religion,” Aaron read from scribbled notes, fussing with his black leather tefillin straps and prayer boxes as his eyes repeatedly searched the synagogue, row by row.

            “If  the shirking bastard had any decency, he’d be by his son’s side…”  She whispered her running commentary between Melissa’s and my shoulders, leaning in from one pew removed.  “Martin Kavalla could be here giving the Father’s Blessing and laying the tefillin.  But the creep never took responsibility for his kid in the first place. That’s why he doesn’t have the balls to show up now.”

             “What parents do for their children is more important than all things else,” young Aaron choked up, tugging at his Hershey brown suit and the white silk tallis tasseled about his shoulders.  He smiled toward his beaming mother—seated front row, center—then zeroed in on the motionless rear doors.  “I think the most fitting reward and token of gratitude I can offer is to fulfill this commandment: To honor thy mother and…thy…father…”

            “What makes it even worse is the putz won’t cut the cord and give Lorraine the divorce she’s been begging for since he ran out.  So he’s, like, making an agunah out of her because it’s the same as if he won’t give her a get.”

            “Gotcha,” I nodded and tsked toward Moon, as if I actually knew what this unfamiliar life force was talking about.

             “It’s tragic, that’s what it is.”  Sydney clearly was still grating over the bumper thumper that had backed us up near Broomfield.  “Here Aaron’s struggling to become a man,” she said, as the congregation rose to bestow its collective Jewish blessing.  “With such a miserable weakling excuse for a father figure.”

             “Man?  The kid’s what, thirteen,” I said out the corner of my mouth, sneaking my own peek at those temple doors, then an uneasily silent Melissa.

             “Shhh, now he’s folding up his Aliyah notes…” Syd grabbed my shoulder as though she had known me just long enough to know I should have known better.

               I didn’t know from Moses.  The entire morning had been a spiritual occlusion—a tie-knotting, tire-spinning race against the mortal plane that landed me three rows away from sacred ritual so foreign to what little I had retained of my Herbert family religion, I was still groping for missalettes and kneeling pads more than halfway through the Torah.

Sydney stifled me once more when the rabbi began extricating young Kavalla from his prayer tefillin.  I sat coldly mystified throughout the unwinding of those black leather spiral wraps up his forearm, those slender coils from the teen’s left palm and middle finger, the meticulous final removal of tiny phlylacteries from his left bicep and forehead, then their gently replacement into a plum velvet pouch.

             By the time Aaron shed his blue striped tallis, I was likening Syd’s shoulder grab to divine intervention, wisdom and insight imparted through a brightly Burning Bush.  That much, I granted her, but not in so many words.

            “Aaron specifically requested to do the orthodox tefillin thing, just to prove that he could,” she smiled.  “Isn’t this a fantastically creative religion?  So sure footed and innovatively challenging—yet so simple, beautiful…simply beautiful!  Don’t you think it’s simply beautiful, Moon?”

             “On a certain level,” Melissa allowed, muffling her response.  “But it’s been a while…”

              “Can we start the seudat mitzvah now,” young Kavalla grinned, straightening his gold laced yarmulke, leading the rabbi down El-Bethel’s center aisle.  With that, his mother and the small Shabbat congregation rushed to congratulate him.

             “Seudat?,” I held pat for some direction.

             “Banquet,” Moon said discreetly.  She looped my arm as we followed Sydney closely out the synagogue doors.  “You know, the reception….”

           “What…you’ve never told me about such things…I’ve never even thought of us this way.”

           “Inspirational, positively inspirational—a 3,000-year-old ritual, I might add,” Syd zipped up her cardinal red ski jacket as we turned down a long canopied corridor, open on one side to chilling foothill winds, which led to the temple’s satellite reception hall.  “He’ll turn out good, that one—his mother’s seeing to it.  Not like his lecher old man…”

             “So, where is this Martin guy,” I pulled earlobe-length hair out of my snowblown eyes.

            “Tsk, Houston’s what I’ve heard,” Melissa cinched her sand tan wool dress-up coat tightly about her narrow waist.  “I’m sure he has his reasons…”

            “Rats don’t have reasons,” Sydney snapped, as we squeezed through the hall’s compact doorway.  Her cheeks flushed brightly under her rouge as she glanced quizzically at Moon.  “Only excuses…”

            The seudat gatherers filed in along two rows of folding metal tables, some pausing to resorb Hanukkah candles and festive bunting that still filled wide expanses of the hall’s okra-tile and acoustic paneled cinderblock walls.  Simply set, buffet style, the table stretched to a three cross-table spread of catered nosh before a modest assembly stage, centerpieced with a huge cut glass bowl of sparkling punch, small ceramic menorahs to either side.  This is to where my eyes drifted, as the casual, relatively youthful congregation pressed Aaron Kavalla’s flesh in the receiving line.

             “What I meant, Syd,” Melissa said softly, “is that a lot of time has passed…”

             “Sorry, a man just doesn’t desert his loved ones,” Sydney stepped in front of me to make her point.  “Especially not to chase some floozie half his age.  It’s beyond me how Lorraine has managed.  She had to move out here from Evanston just to get through it all.”

            “She’s got to be one tough lady, all right,” Moon led me nearer to the man of honor, within whiffing distance of the nosh, seemingly still floored, small world-wise, that the Mendels had other family living in Boulder, albeit down towards Table Mesa.  “Maybe a little too tough?”

             “Oh, on Martin—poor baby,” Sydney huffed.  “As if a woman can be too tough these days.”

             “Uh, is that stuff for anybody,” I asked, as anxious to butt out of this conversation as I was to hit those tables before everything had been spread too thin.  A forward third of the line was already poring over fat platters of Nova lox and holishkes; deep dishes of whitefish and cucumber salad; asides of shav, challah, gefilte kishka and kashen varnishkes; a sweet finish of Lokshen kugel, rugalach, plus assorted blintzes and varenikehs.  I white-bread knew not what to make of any of this.  Then again, I hadn’t eaten anything since Stapleton’s B-Concourse vending machines.

             “I’m only saying these things are usually more complicated than they appear,” Melissa said.

             “Not when it comes to marriage,” Sydney dug into her down jacket for Aaron’s bar mitzvah cards.  “That’s where the complications end…like they should have with Lester…”

             “Now, now—let’s not start that,” Moon backstepped to let Sydney lead the way toward the Kavallas with two more silver embossed money holder, upping the ante on a small booty of gift talmuds and fountain pens.  “But you know better than anyone that I speak from experience here…”

             “Aaron, you little mensch you,” Sydney interrupted, tweaking the bar mitzvah boy’s cheek, then embracing her long-lost cousin.  “Lor-raine, you must be so proud…”

            “Sydney dear, you did make it in,” Lorraine Ridich-Kavalla smiled, a plain, rather zaftik brunette in motherly pink and pearls.  “Faith called and said you were stranded in some avalanche or….”

            “Not quite, but she and Daddo apologize to death for the no-show.  Florida’s just so ridiculously far away,” Sydney pulled out and handed them two silver embossed money holders.  “You recall Melissa, don’t you?  Turns out she’s been living right here in Boulder, too.  This is her…friend.”

             “Of course,” Lorraine’s smile tightened, Aaron tapping his foot impatiently beside her to a soundtrack of Dan Fogelberg, now crooning, ‘Part of the Plan’.  “Melissa dear, we’ve never heard from you or…”

             “Lester’s not in Colorado, Lorraine,” Sydney abruptly ushered Moon and me toward the buffet. “You know him, he’ll never cross the Mississippi…”

            “Pleased to meet you. But if you don’t mind, I’m headin’ for the eats,” I shook Aaron’s hand damply and nodded toward the platters.  I also craved a moment to digest this first full morning’s rasher of Melissa’s spiritual sister, her artsy world-beating genius role model goddess of freedom and light, this high-speed car chase in ski togs with the cinnamon midwinter tan.

Fighting off some fresh-brewed acidity, I went whole hog for the spread—sampling some kreplach and knishes, piling on the more safely familiar fare: a plateful of corned beef, deviled eggs and spinach squares, a little lemon-honey cake and two shmears of prune strudel.  I loaded up on punch, then spotted Moon staking out three chairs directly across from seats reserved for Lorraine and Aaron’s bobbeh.  A few breathless swallows of sparkling loganberry, and I was already searching for the doors.

             “Just look at them,” Sydney sighed, joining Melissa, seating her to her left.  “And tell me Martin Kavalla isn’t a cubic putz for running off.”

             “Cube…damn.”  I angled up to rejoin them, sensing an opening, my plate folded over like a pocket pita.  “Moon, that reminds me I promised the dean’s office I’d finalize class evaluations and clear out my cubicle before Monday.”

             “Kenny, we just…”

             “Really?” Sydney added, flapping her napkin.  “It’s Saturday.”

            “No choice, Dean Cross is busting my noogies as it is,” I figured all of us could stand a digestive break.  At least over on campus, I could rebury myself in more empirically recognizable terrain. “Besides, I’m sure you two have plenty to talk about…”

            “But the car…you’ve barely eaten,” said Melissa.  “You know how you get when…”

             “Keep it here.  I’ll hike over for my clunker, down this as I go,” I brush kissed her hair blossom-scented hair, then buttoned my gray corduroy sport coat.  “So not to worry.  I’ll see you guys later at the house, OK?   Say, how’s about I get you two some punch and stuff before…”

             “We’ll manage,” Sydney replied frostily.  “By all means, leave the gals to their hen party.”

Care for more?

Chapter 5.  A snowy trudge across campus,
and this post-holiday tête à tête is missed, as is a
sisterly meeting of the minds… 

“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 headlocked the face-licking Setter, twisting Seamus’s neck, biting the dog’s crusted left ear 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, but 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/schedule press 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 my own self.

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, Seamus 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 towelled Seamus off some, but didn’t have enough time to take him home.  So I was forced to leave him stew in the student parking lot, vent windows cracked wide.  Still, a couple of hours really fried things, with that sun-broiled  McKyle’s’ pit stop only intensifying 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, witlessly blurted that sorry diagnosis between Spearman’s rho and Kendall’s tau.  So now I shuddered, slapping fiercely at my throbbing 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 under a drafty door.  From there, 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 uppermost 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.

University Hill, Boulder

 While this climb cleared my sinuses, the aural ringing wouldn’t cease, my whole head blowing up like a Jiffy Pop bag.  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 nearby rushing 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.  Much as I loved Boulder, I couldn’t shake the painful synapses I had snapping up here, atop The Hill which was 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 the hell is this shit?  This isn’t me, at least the me that’s supposedly supposed to be by now…

I slid to a stop in front of 519 Cliff, splashing slush and gravel toward a peak-roofed former miner’s cabin with a swaying 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.

Boulder cabin entrance.

“Sorry about the…ouch!”  I tossed the Setter a few remaining 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 totally 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 really cookin’, aren’t we…” 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! So help me, I could have killed him right then and there …”

“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 caught another whiff, up close and personal, as if downwind of a Porta-Potty dump 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—a Franco-Italian weasel!”

“Hmm, come to think of it, I think he was kinda comin’on to me a little bit,” she fled back into oven-warmed kitchen, waft with the natural sweetness of scratch baking.  “Sorta over-the-line 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…it’ll all work out, just watch.”

“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 again.  Now, how about a little celebration for once…let’s just flow with it.”

“If you say so,” 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 actualized, 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 wasn’t 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 me with the bakery tray.  “She won’t be staying here, anyway.  She’s got other people in Boulder, you know.  In fact, she says 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.  “Better go out and hose everything down…”

Care for more?

 Chapter 4. In the service of an
entirely different kind of service,
markers of manhood are laid bare.

 

“Even Saturn’s Virtues
are dreary.  And its vices are
particularly unpleasant. Because they
operate through the emotion we call fear.”

         “Sticky? You left the Bay Area for…Boulder?”  I watched a regiment of long-suited joggers file down mall after a rally at Frank Shorter Sports, forerunners of the valley’s endorphin revolution. “Happened to take a little trip to Frisco myself, over Thanksgiving.  Seemed pretty big time…sort of like the mother lode of raw empirical data. Couple of people showed me some ropes, and everything. I mean, I probably wouldn’t plant a flag there or anything…”

            “Big-time hassles.  I was subbing and stuff, closing in on the big 3-0, and things were closing in on me,”  Paul Verniere pulled down his Aviators, wiping clean the chrome lenses.  He then swept his arm around toward the campus and sloping winter peaks back-dropping every artery and building in between.  “By the way, don’t call it Frisco, and don’t kid yourself.  Boulder is Walden Pond compared to there. The people and…hell, just open your eyes, man.”

Mall and mountain view

         Other than a sprinkling of grizzled Pearl Street mainstays, only the banks and brickface remained.  Frontier storefronts still bore pioneer nameplates the likes of Boettcher, 1878 and Browning, 1890—but everything else on the mall was yesterday’s news.  Walls had been sand blasted, wood beams stripped and exposed.  Designer jeans and leather basked in display cases once saddled with tack and rodeo wear, common housewares had upscaled into track-lit earthly goods.

          A Pearl Street where hot, dust-spitting Jimmies and Power Wagons once went axle to straight axle for cruising rights had by now been feasibility studied, climate compensated, traffic diverted, pedestrian engineered, cluster illuminated, environmentally integrated, energy efficiencied and assessed to the hilt—then swarmed over by come-latelys too new to know any different.

            “C’mon, Everybody’s Favorite City?”  I was taken aback by Verniere’s candor, fixing to toss down a major slug of Lucky Lager.  “It seemed so worldly and incredibly alive.  I mean sometimes Boulder does make me a little stir crazy.”

            “Listen, San Francisco can make you certifiably crazy…I’m dead serious,” he spoke through another, more modest splash of Grenache, wringing the stem of his glass.  “That City of mine’s a rubber room with a view these days, 49 miles square. Trust me, it can suck you into situations way beyond your control.”

            “Rubber…suck?  Jeez, I can see captivating maybe, but…”

            “Besides, you’ve got it socked here, right?  Great dog, righteous ol’ lady, happening little dream house up on The Hill.  Me, I’m stuck out there in flatsville valley, overlooking the picturesque Crossroads loading docks.”

            “Aw, you’ll work your way up there eventually.  Housing’s a right of passage in this town,” I swallowed, over the roar of a snowblower casting the last slushing drifts aside. “We started out by 28th Street, too…uh, how did you know about…”

            “What can I say?   Guess it’s the outgoing Franco-dago in me.  Must have been at the department’s Christmas party, remember?  You brought your…wife…Melissa, is it?  Such a nice gal, of the Hebrew persuasion?  She told me all…

            “Moon, my…housemate.  Guess I forgot she came along…and the Hebrew thing I can’t say much about.  I mean, it hardy ever comes up.”

            “Forgot?  Maybe you were too busy hitting on Grammersly…”

            “The hell…”   What…stuck, I thought, flitter glancing his way.  What hassles, what situations?  What Hebrew persuasion?  Something about this guy didn’t jibe.  He was a little too open, a little too closed–a little too needy, a little too set—a little too youthful, a little too old.  In some untoward way, I wanted to hear more about Paul Verniere, I just didn’t want to hear it from him.  Why Sosh?  Why here?  Why was this guy reading Camus and Dos Passos, when he could have been hung up on Garp and Castenada like everybody else around town?  And what was he hiding in all those damn pockets? “Anyway, nothing’s socked now that my program’s over.  Cross and Terrent were really noncommittal about my doctoral acceptance.  How did they put it?  ‘No such determinations had yet been made regarding any of our candidates.’  Just before Grammersly came up with her ‘extinguish’ crack.  This is so totally out of nowhere, I don’t even begin to know what’s next.  God forbid—downtown Denver—maybe some internship or miserable counseling center.”

            “Wow, actually go out and take on the ills of society.  What a methodology…”

            Across Broadway, long, lazy wooden benches stretched sidewalk-to-sidewalk, hedge rowing a half-block of barren flowerbeds and saplings smack down center mall, where dueling traffic used to be.  It was now prime resting ground for the over studious undergrads and understudied laggards soaking in the cabin fever-breaking mood of the day.  Kick back and explore the people exploring the gran criterion bike shop, organic bakery/smoothies bar, the sheepskin fleecers and synthetic jazz clubs.

          Everybody high and trail-mixed and colorfully down filled, spacewalking along the snowy mountain background, reaching a dreamy state of happathy, seeking out mythical Morkins behind every young Green Ash and Linden tree—as if such creatures ever actually landed east of Studio City, California.  Still, I found myself pining for old shitkicking, pool-shooting Art ’n’ Arnie’s up there on the corner—a cowboy dive any tenderfoot could get himself honorably snookered in—before some Chicago deep-dish pizza franchise booted their rowdy asses up to Nederland and Ward.

            “Anyway, without the Ph.D. program, there’s nothing much around here for me,” I added, before downing my Lucky in earnest.  “It’s like teaching…get your credentials and work construction.  I didn’t sweat out a master’s to nail tarpaper and shingles.”

            “Aww, hang in there, it’s well worth the wait.  My mother’s always told me a good education can buy you things, or freedom from things.”  An upstart breeze must have stirred my essence, prompting him to back an arm’s length from the table.  “Although I must say it makes me glad I’m locked in for this fall.”

            “Got that right…wait a minute, I thought you’re graduating this spring…”

            “Yes, finishing out the master’s I started at San Francisco State,” Verniere said, hands now free to gesticulate, boxing things neatly as he spoke.  “I’m talking about doctoral.”

            “How the hell can you have a lock on that?  Nobody…”

            “Grammersly told me so, at the Christmas party…she said she’d already discussed it with Cross.”

             “No way,” I spouted, snatching my Lucky bottle.  “Just this morning they said…”

            “Who knows,” Verniere asked, with a sweep of his arm.  “Maybe you should have been hitting on her…”

            “Oh, right.  Next you’ll be telling me they’ve already granted you an assistantship.” I nervously drained my longneck brew.

            “Don’t need it,” he smiled, shaking out his cutback curly black hair, a serpentine ring setting glistening in the sun.  “A little granny family trust is there so long as I use if for self improvement. My job’s the GPA…ready for another suds there?”

            “Uh, no thanks,” I pushed my bottle away, barely stifling the ire.  Hmph, another damn trust buster.  “Well, that’s just great for you…I really mean it…”

            “Yessir, fresh new intellectual horizons—besides, gotta stay here in mountopia, nested with all the adoring young chickadoos, right?”  Verdiere beckoned the waitress, who had patrolled their corner like a minesweeper since the opening round.  “Mellow out, Herbert, I’ll get two more going here.”

            “No, really—I’d better go…got some errands,” I correlated my timing against Boulder Bank’s pedestal clock.  Either it was striking at twenty after the hour, or this little reality check was all of a sudden compression ringing, ear to ear.

            “I hear you,” he replied quizzically, gently tapping the waitress’s hipbone as she squeezed between tables, full tray.  “Listen, we’ll do this again real soon, hey?  Maybe you can fill me in on the orals portion while it’s still fresh.  I mean, did they cover Path Analysis or Epistemological Curvilinearity, shuck and jive like that on the orals portion?  I’ve got it coming up in June, and all…and you are the teachers’ pet rock, aren’t you?”

            “In my dreams.  But I really don’t hang out much on Pearl Street anymore…”  I rose, striving to keep civil distance from the Margarita party one table down.  No such luck.  My cavalier parting wave caught that pivoting waitress squarely across her Golden Buffaloes, which sent her tray sailing, gimlets, and all.  More startled than she, I centrifugally crashed the neighboring party, specifically their refilled pitcher.

            “Hey, real smooth, jerk-off!”  A McKyle’s’ regular of rodeo proportions rose like a Trident missile launcher, glaring at me, blotting Margarita from his butterscotch leather sport coat with the overhang of a white linen tablecloth.

            “Sorry…aww Christ…”  I dabbed his shoulder with some Kahlua cocktail napkins.

            “Suit yourself, Herbert,” snapped Verniere, backing his chair further away from all the drips.  “Whew, where have you been, anyway?!”

            “My goddamn dog,” I muttered, righting stemware, helping the waitress apply more napkin compresses to the frosted party of four.

            “Dog?”  He sniffed.  “That’s horse manure, if you ask me.  And here I was, going to take you for a spin in my Targa.”

            “A long story…guess it’s the tipsy Scotcho-mick in me.”  I sponged at my own checkered plaid flannel and jeans, then vaulted over McKyle’s’ wall into the path of a custodial crew changing clustered glass-globe streetlights.  “Uh, sorry… Hey, catch you later, Paul, OK?  And thanks for the brew.”

            “Sure, Herbert, sorry about that,” Venire sneered, waving his right, jade-ringed hand—narrow, porous face nay shaking behind those cold, reflective shades.  “CU down the road…”

Care for more?

SaturNext:

 Chapter 3. An angry acknowledgement,
then a bloody Sisyphean ride home. 

 

SATURN RENDEZVOUS.™

What Goes Around, Storms Around.

Saturn, gem of the universe, the Ferrari of planets:
A spongy hydrogen ball over 740 million miles out
there—large enough to hold 750 Earths, light enough
to float on water.  Behold the mathematical perfection
of its rings, the operatic static between them as they span
165,000 miles, magneto-radiating 150 feet icy thick.  And
that’s not the half of it, sonny boy…”
       Dame Thornia DeWilde             

____________________________________

#BOCOSTRONG
With all due sympathy and respect:
However, this tale is from an earlier, pearlier time…
____________________________________________


Boulder, Colorado: 1978

Should have seen this coming—damned if she didn’t say it would…

But no, not here, not yet: I’d simply ventured downtown to bemoan, bemingle, walk off some vexations, lose myself like some stress-tested lab rat in the crowd—just not exactly this way at all.

“C’mon, you’re not that busy, Herbert.  Haul your lazy ass over here…”

“Uh, think I’d better pass,” I pulled up in a prefrontal dither, “aww, hold on a sec.” Then came one clumsy hurdle  over a thigh-high railing.

Back then, seeing a guy like him right now was giving the lye to already tired eyes, but here we collegially were. Sure, judgment day happened to fall amid one of those balmy January storm breaks, about which eastern slope Colorado had always kept so mum.  Four to six inches of fresh powder one day, mostly gone by the next, with the next storm gathering to blow over the Front Range: This latest soft snowpack had already melted across much of Boulder Valley, these lower elevations currently being strafed by warm Chinook winds.  Shallow drifts dissolved from the foothills and Chautauqua like carbonated foam, barely clinging to the Flatirons’ lower facing and lee shadows for purely seasonal effect.

Such garnishing was no match for the mile-high sun, a cerulean cellophane brilliance that radiated clear over the Continental Divide, generating the very same giddy, fissionable Rocky Mountain energy so exalted in verse and song.  By this time, everybody in beautiful Boulder had grown to hate Denver for the unwanted attention—the singer, that is.  Tried-and-true Bouldernistas never could much bear the city all along.

Still, not more than an hour or so before, though seemingly aeons ago, I had staggered out of red tile-roofed Ketchum Hall, angling across campus past Old Main, the University of Colorado’s revered brick Victorian pioneer cornerstone, sloshing through snowmelt, dodging busy ground squirrels and white tufts that fell feather light from the bare branches of birch and elms.

My earliest impression of the school was, take the Rockies away, and you had every other State.  But before long, I couldn’t have taken to the mountainside campus more if it had been Cambridge with a mountain view.  I felt especially so on days this crisp, this clean—mild mid-winter days better spent outdoors than in—best frozen forever in place and time.  Reason enough why I went woozy at any hint of budget cuts or faculty ambivalence.  Then again, it might have just been the altitude, or that I had stayed too breathlessly long in my car.

“There, sit yourself down, my man…”

“Uh, careful, Paul, you may not want to get too close…my headache might be catching.”

The only real headache of consequence in the late-70s Boulder Valley I had just steered through was rampant, problematical growth.  As Denver sprawled up the Route 36 corridor, breathing room between the two cities narrowed to where local space vigilantes had all but circled their welcome wagons at the Turnpike’s summit rim.  Precious greenbelts tightened, building permits abated, sewer and gas caps were locked down.  Federally funded research centers monitored the atmosphere from their hillside labs, environmental activists blizzarded the valley with hellish impact statements.

A bitter bumper sticker backlash pitted native against nouveau-native against newcomer—the battle cry, ‘Think Globally, Act Neighborly’ giving way to the NIMBYism, ‘Get In, Get Yours—Then Baby, Bar The Door’.  Despite everything, still they came, from every direction, settling up and down the glorious Front Range.  By now, even a sociologist on the make like myself struggled to keep up with all the changes, much less the turbo coupes and full-dress 4x4s blowing workaday pick-ups and station wagons better than mine off area roads.

For what once was the hippest little college town on the underground/counter-culture trail between Mad City and Berkeley was now a univerCity being Morked and Mindified in network primetime, coast to coast, and trending toward irretrievably, commercially cutesy cool.  Boulder’s founders turned over in their Pioneer cemetery graves as modest brick and frame cottages and bungalows burst out all over with skylights, barn wood dormers and rainbow leaded-glass lofts, turning over and over again at mile-high multiples.

With old Boulder thus engaged, most resource-rich newbies pushed new Boulder’s upper limits northward and into wild, mining-claimed, combustible mountain canyons, the rest just spread eastward across the valley, coalescing with Lafayette and Longmont.  But nowhere was Boulder’s new frontier more evident than in the dead center heart of town.

“Nonsense, don’t be so schizo…”

“No, I’m serious,” I said, having just coasted beer-bound into an alley spot off Spruce street, in the cool shadow of a simple blue frame house that had been reconfigured into this fave little feminist restaurant with by-reservation-only cuisine.  Near enough to Pearl Street, I figured, near enough to Nancy’s dumpster so that no one would pin that ungodly odor on my car.  “So, what’re you reading there?”

“Just about the cranking up of protest rallies and demonstrations in Qum, Iran now, for Godsakes. The Middle East, man, that’s important business over there,” Verniere said, dog earing a page corner, closing his Harper’s magazine. “If it weren’t for the oil, they ought to blow the whole of Arabia up.”

“Just keep gas prices down.  That’s all that really matters…”

Along with the local cowboys and common townsfolk went such quaint notions as covered wagon coffee shops and musty dry goods stores.  So the planning commission and a bandwagon of downtown boosters went high concept: Pearl Street as playground.  I had scurried up Boulder’s new kiosked, landscaped, red bricked-over main drag past Aquarian bookstores, goose down outfitters, wood-carving galleries and backcountry bookstores—some four blocks overall, short on everyday mercantile practicality, long on yogurt and Rocky Road.  Serious shoppers fled to crossroads centers; everybody else came here to juggle and gawk. I certainly hadn’t come for the shopping today, much less for veging around to talk shop.

“Well, today’s the big day, am I right?” At least that’s what Paul R. Verniere was apparently up to, having emerged from the dark recessed doorway of a hardware provisions store turned watering hole, wine glass in hand.

“How’s that,” I asked stiffly, drawing up to a low wall framing McKyle’s’ brimming sidewalk patio.  Verniere had made me uneasy since fall-term registration, when he snapped up the last late-morning Social Stratification Proseminar seat.  Even now, standing there all loose and wiry in those tailored twill bush pants and well-travelled leather bombadier jacket, he and every stitch about him begged one question or another: Like how he was a year or so older, yet a little bit baccalaureately behind even me, or why he seemed to be evading or escaping something. Which is perhaps why I thought about this curious fellow grad student rather routinely—Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8:05.

“You know, the O.K. Corral,” he moved quickly to nail down a front corner table, overlooking a bare honey-locust sapling and some snowy flower crocks.  “Orals week and all…”

“Don’t wanna talk about it…”  I vaulted the patio wall, albeit against my better judgment, grabbing a seat safely downwind, averting to survey the scene.  Certain people said I looked less like a grade grunt than a red-shirted point guard, but you couldn’t tell it by me.

The Pearl Street Mall had been something of a spectacle right from the ceremonial ribbon cut—grand local theatre in an increasingly theatrical town.  Shakespearean fencing, storefront rappellers, tribal bellydancers, carpet skiing, flag-bearing fan dancers: today, the show went on, albeit minus the ranchero and harabe hoofers, but numbing just the same.  This Friday afternoon, the parade consisted mostly of post-holiday bargain hunters sidestepping student malingerers bagging finals, who drifted around ski helots between free lifts to Eldora or Copper Mountain.

“No really, what dya know?” Verniere beckoned a blonde pony-tailed waitress in an overstretched CU sweatshirt.  “Another Grenache, hon, and whatever for my friend here.  Just run me the tab…”

“Beer—anything but Coors,” I said, in the wake of her zero-tolerance 501s.  Sniffing about for more orders, she was already trolling back under McKyle’s’ logo-emblazoned patio awning to the bar.

“Interest you in grabbing her by the Buffalo horns, hey,” Verniere asked slyly, as he tabled his Mastercard. “Yessir, I could see jumping her bones, latch onto those flotation devices…”

“Yeah well, I’m not really much for devices these days.”

Anyway, word’s had it in the faculty lounge that today is your orals Armageddon,” Verniere pressed, rays glazing off the chest of his orange Tubes top as he set his wine glass atop a tattered Foreign Affairs Quarterly.  “So, what’s the scoop…”

“You’d really like to know, wouldn’t you,” I erupted.

“C’mon, wouldn’t you?”

McKyle’s tucked narrowly between a crystal/fossils bookstore gallery and a brand new Falafel Phil’s, its SRO patio positioned favorably for a spectacular mall-against-the-mountains scenario that made for marathon tabs.  After a wintry week of storms, a day this perfect fairly vindicated the whole controversial downtown concept.  Strolling folkies even set a melic, placidly uterine subtone to it all.

“OK, you’ve got it.”  Hardly becalmed in the least,  I grabbed my Lucky Lager from her tray as the waitress swayed by, then licked the head out of my mustache on the down draft.  “So Ketchum’s second floor was like a Star Chamber, all right?  They’re grilling me on Data Analysis for must have been two hours…”

“Really—like what,” Verniere sipped intently.

“You know, the heavy statistics and stuff,” I vented, although guardedly filtering out various specifics and details.  “Multivariate Factor Analysis, Logistic Regression—putting me through the wringer on Correlation Coefficients, Probit Analysis—everything from Pearsonian r to Kendall’s tau.  It was brutal, almost like academic mind control or something.  And I’m just not that into mind control, you know?”

“Whoa, who is anymore, right?  But I’ll wager a sawbuck you did just fine…”

“Are you kidding?”  Lucky loosening my tongue, I proceeded to describe how my grand design on academic tenure had been reduced to random purges.  Tracking error, warped disk: Frantic cramming and desperate all-nighters had only left me with a weakened beam.  The three-chair sociology faculty committee had in turn left me with the impression that they had recently examined far too many substandard deviations from the mean.  After a while, it got so I started drifting intellectually toward the lone seminar room window, fixing out on a narrow clip of the snow-veiled Flatirons, all but jailbreaking out of the chamber altogether.

“Know the feeling, but it couldn’t have been all that bad, could it?”

“Who knows?  The way Professor Cross was grilling me, clearing his throat at painful intervals…”  That would have been Wallford Cross, Ph.D., a slight, Cream-of-Wheat Skinnerian who had levered into a department chairmanship via the National Science Foundation pipeline.  “It was gradual torment…he finally suggested I ‘go forth in the world and…distinguish myself’.  Can you believe that?”

“I hear you, but what about Terrent?”

“Ol’ Uncle Emlen?  Forget about it…”  Even Blanchard Professor of Applied Sociology, Emlen Terrent, my advisor and best post-graduate hope, had sniffed and shifted in his rumpled tweed and cords, seemingly far better prepped for a mid-year Champagne luncheon at the faculty club.  “The three of them had already snapped shut their folio cases by the time I stood up.  They couldn’t get out of the room fast enough…”

“So maybe it was pro forma, probably means you’re a shoe-in,” Verniere said. “Sounds to me like your imagination is working overtime…”

“Oh, yeah?  Then when I tripped over their newly endowed chair, Helen Grammersly said, ‘that was distinguish yourself, not extinguish’.  All the way out, I’m tryin’ to figure how I’d gone in there with all the answers, and come out with a ton of questions.”

Truth was that very flood of questions haunted me down Ketchum’s hardwood hallways, as I scored each nick and telltale scar from preceding student bodies whose operose methodology yielded a similarly null hypothesis.  I’d whistled past a front lobby bulletin board as high on horizons as it was low on real-world opportunities: thumbtacked full of travel here, study there—apply now, not to worry about applying it later.  But as Dr. Terrent always said, everything came in time, degrees of effort in positive correlation with degrees of elevation.  I chewed on that and half a stale, pocketed Milk-Bone all the way across the quad.  “Extinguish, my ass—who the hell does she think she…”

“Ah, well, Grammersly’s doctorate is from Berkeley,” Verniere scoffed, tossing back a goodly portion of his second wine—not exactly Pacino he , but no Jeff Goldblum either.  “Everybody’s a smart ass there.  I know, was a Cal Bear undergrad myself.”

“I don’t care where she’s from.  No snotty skirt’s gonna…wait, you’re from Berzerkely?  I thought…”

“Crazier yet, San Francisco, why do you think I came out here?” he toasted. “Things can get real sticky there. And when they do, they stick to you.”

Care for more?

SaturNext

Chapter 2. This conversation continues, questions
are answered, 
more are raised—
Colorado meets California over 
the Divide…