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A Trip to the Stars (Nicholas Christopher)


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  New Orleans

I had a gift for dead languages. Latin, Greek, a smattering of Phoenician. Every night the first year he was gone, I dreamed of Loren. And in the dreams with a piece of charcoal he was writing letters to me in Latin on a long white wall. Cara Alma, he began each one, in his rounded script, trying to tell me where he was. But I could never translate fast enough to make sense of the contents, and what I did remember when I woke up made no sense at all.

Though I am not the kind of person who ever cried herself to sleep--not when my closest relatives died, not when people hurt or left me--on some of those nights, when I woke suddenly, I drenched my pillow thinking of Loren, whom I had hardly known.

The police were of little help. From the start, they told me that a determined kidnapper, professional or otherwise, was among the most difficult criminals to thwart. And that I was a victim too--a ripe target since I was young and unaccustomed to having children in my care. The wariest adult, they said, when properly distracted--I had merely been tapped on the shoulder, only to find no one behind me and Loren gone when I looked down again--could have a child plucked away from under her nose. None of this assuaged me. On my own I kept looking for him. I dropped out of school, though I was in my last year. I had some money--about four thousand dollars--that I had inherited from my mother. It was she who had raised Loren after my sister Luna and her husband Milo Haris were killed nearly three years earlier. Luna and Milo had been itinerants, living in over a dozen different cities in the seven years after they adopted Loren in Reno, Nevada. The next city would have been Pittsburgh, but they died on its outskirts. As a baby, Loren had known only the road. They had adopted him, and now, somehow, I was his only surviving relative.

I used most of my inheritance to hire a private investigator after Loren disappeared. In two months he came up with only one thing: a woman fitting my description exactly had been seen getting into a car with a boy fitting Loren's description--navy pea coat, black watch cap, plaid scarf. After that, nothing. It had been very cold that day, and he and the woman had vanished like the vapor of my breath. The fact that the woman so closely fit my description did not make things easier with the police. Especially when no ransom note, phone call, or message of any sort arrived from this look-alike kidnapper. The police had begun to look at me askance, with a mistrust bordering on suspicion--of, at the very least, my sanity.

Beginning to doubt the latter myself, I walked around the city carrying Loren's photograph for weeks. It was the only photograph of him I possessed, taken one summer at Coney Island: wearing a sailor cap aslant, hands on hips, he was squinting into the sunlight. My mother didn't believe in photographs. She said they didn't preserve memories, they diluted them. She had other such odd, but firmly held, beliefs. Like her proud claim that she never dreamed. And that a dreamless sleep was the sign of a clear conscience.

Radiating outward in circles from the planetarium, I showed the dog-eared photograph to everyone I could think of--taxi drivers, storekeepers, workmen, doormen, dog walkers--and then, in desperation, to people who couldn't possibly help me, like random pedestrians and obvious transients. No one had seen anything. Before my circles reached the city limits, the photograph had crumbled, days, then months, had blurred away, the seasons had run their cycle, and finally, exhausted, I gave up my search. The police gave up, too. "It's an open case that is never going to be closed," they told me. "'Inactive,' we call it."

During that year, all of 1966, I stayed in my mother's house in Brooklyn. I slept not in mine but in Loren's bedroom, which had been my sister Luna's room before she ran off with Milo. At night I lay on his small bed, under the blue quilt, with his things around me, and for hours in the dark I went over and over the last day I had spent with Loren. From the little I had seen of him, I had drawn a strong impression. In his pea coat and cap he walked with something of a rolling gait, like a sailor. He was a wiry, athletic kid with the straight posture and the intense, direct gaze of someone who, on his own too soon, had grown up too fast. As, strangely enough, often happens in these cases, he had ended up looking a good deal like my sister, his adoptive mother: symmetrical features built around wide cheekbones and a straight nose, and the same dark wavy hair and gray eyes. But while Luna had nervous hands, quick gestures, and a staccato way of talking, Loren was steady and unhurried. Perhaps with such peripatetic parents, this had been his only recourse--a positive development.

That last afternoon, before going to the planetarium, we had stopped at a diner nearby. I drank coffee and Loren picked at a western omelette. This was only our second time out since my mother's death. The night before, we had gone to the movies. Though I was nominally his aunt, not only did Loren and I hardly know each other, but we shared almost no history together. Before my mother's death, I hadn't seen him in nearly a year. And suddenly I was the only person between him and an orphanage. Two months short of my twenty-first birthday, with a cramped studio apartment in Boston, three hundred dollars in my checking account, and my secondhand Impala, I now had a ward to care for--by default.

My mother, robust all her life, had died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage while getting ready for bed. Loren had discovered her the next morning. After calling for an ambulance, he had sat on the floor with her head in his lap. Though the police operator had instructed him not to move her, Loren told me he had known right away that she was dead, and, after holding the mirror in her compact under her nose to make sure, he couldn't stand the idea of just leaving her there like that, on the cold wooden floor. After they took her body away, and telephoned me in Boston, the police wanted Loren to go stay with one of the neighbors, but he refused to leave the house. The woman next door came over and cooked him dinner and then sat up in the living room after he went to bed. When I arrived in the evening, I found Loren in my mother's bedroom. He was lying on his back in her bed, still dressed and on top of the covers, with the lights off, gazing into the darkness. I switched on the lamp and sat down at the foot of the bed. His eyes were bloodshot and his face grief-stricken. But whatever crying he had done was behind him and his voice was composed.

"What will I do now?" were his first words to me.

"You'll be okay," I said, keeping my voice steady and pressing my hand to his cheek. Though I had been asking myself the same question--on his behalf and my own--all during the drive from Boston, I did not yet have a real answer for him.

When I went to the bathroom to get him a glass of water, I closed the door behind me, buried my face in a towel, and cried--not for my mother, but for Loren. As much as I felt I had gotten a raw deal when it came to family matters, it didn't compare to what he had been through: twice orphaned and now orphaned again because of an untimely death--all before the age of ten.

My mother and I had been estranged for three years--since I had left for college, just months before Loren arrived at her house. Our estrangement was the culmination of the eight years since her own mother's death in which we had lived alone together, in an atmosphere that alternated between suspiciousness and outright hostility. I never knew my father. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at the height of the Second World War and was sent to the South Pacific in June, 1944. At the time, Luna was eight years old, and my mother didn't know that she herself was barely a month pregnant. I was born the following February, seven months after my father was killed in the battle to liberate Guam from the Japanese. Posthumously my father had been awarded a Silver Star for valor, which my mother kept framed in the living room. My mother never remarried, and the three of us lived frugally on her salary as a salesclerk at Macy's and the veteran's benefits she received for my father. For the first ten years of my life, until her death, my mother's mother moved in with us, to help out. Not surprisingly, my mother never spoke of it (an aunt from Staten Island filled me in on the story) but my grandmother had been a drunk. My mother always told Luna and me that our grandmother, the long-suffering widow of a fireman, had died of "a broken heart"; but according to this aunt, the toxic agent at work in my grandmother's bloodstream when her heart gave out one night had been, not love, but Seven Roses rye, which she drank from a teacup. So I was raised by widows, in a house of women seldom visited by men.

When I was eighteen I had an abortion--illegal in those days--and because of complications afterward my mother got wind of it. At the same time, I was busted for selling marijuana, in order to pay the doctor, and what little communication existed between my mother and me broke down completely. One year I only came home from college on Christmas Day, and another year it was on Thanksgiving--for half a day--but that was it. And because of the way Luna moved around, I hardly ever saw her--or Loren--for more than a day at a time, also, inevitably, in chaotic circumstances. In her will my mother had made no provisions for Loren. Not surprising, since the will had been drawn up twelve years earlier, before his birth or adoption, when my mother had bequeathed her small savings and her sole asset, the house, to Luna and me.

So Loren and I had sat in that diner and tried to plot our next move, each of us squirming. An orphanage was out of the question. In my mind, there were three possibilities: a foster home for him, with a new family; a continuation of his life in my mother's house--the same school, neighborhood, and all the rest--with me assuming her role and getting some sort of job in the city; or if I sold her house, he could move up to Boston with me, into a bigger apartment, while I finished school. From our previous conversations I knew that the foster home was anathema to him. Living in my mother's house, working in a dead-end job, was equally repellent to me. Which left option number three. I was six months away from my degree in classics, and after plowing through Strabo, Lucretius, Tacitus, and Procopius--the natural scientists and historians--I had planned an extensive trip around the Mediterranean basin the following year before entering graduate school. If Loren moved in with me, that would all go out the window. And even if I managed to obtain more financial aid, and we lived on a shoestring, yoking our lives until he was old enough to go away to school himself, what kind of existence would it be for either of us? I who had no desire for children of my own, and he who desperately needed a parent and not someone, however well-intentioned, with the age difference of a sister rather than a mother--someone who surely exuded the same sort of ambivalence as had Luna and Milo, his late father.

Some of this was spoken between us, some we kept to ourselves, but, in the end, the hour we spent huddled in that red vinyl booth, our breath clouding the window as we stared at the stream of traffic on the West Side Highway, felt interminable. We ended up talking mostly about Luna and Milo. I told him about how they had met, waiting on line outside a movie house when Milo was playing hooky from his job at a music store and Luna was on Easter break from the fashion design school to which she never returned. And about Luna's peculiar desire as a girl to live on a houseboat, which she never realized. From my mother Loren had acquired a skewed--highly sanitized and fanciful--version of their lives. For someone who insisted others hew a taut line with regard to the truth, my mother took many liberties.

For example, she insisted to Loren--who knew better--that Milo was a construction engineer, though in fact when he worked at all after his marriage it was as a carpenter with minimal training who did pickup jobs or short-term stints on construction sites. Between jobs he drank, smoked reefer, and pursued his fantasy of becoming a disc jockey by practicing incessantly with a tape recorder and taking his demo tape by every radio station in every city they passed through. The rare times he was summoned to audition, he never got the job. Luna all the while provided a small but steady income as, variously, a cashier, a waitress, and a manicurist. My mother had also informed Loren that Luna had become a psychic at the end of her life--a strange admission (or fiction) for someone who boasted that she didn't dream. My mother claimed to me that in the last month of her life Luna dreamt the circumstances of her death and sent them to her in a letter. I never saw the letter, and when I spoke to Luna at that time, late one night, long-distance from Kansas City, she didn't prophesy her death or anything else. Her voice thin, exhausted, she told me that Milo was drinking more heavily than ever and that the following week they were setting out for Pittsburgh, where he claimed to have lined up a job on an evangelical radio station.

Instead, on a highway entering the city, he swerved across the double line and slammed into an oncoming milk truck.

And this was very much on Loren's mind that afternoon at the diner. Until then, he had never once mentioned the accident to me.

"See, I wasn't killed," he told me matter-of-factly, "because of the way I used to sleep in the back of the car. They always traveled at night. They would build me a little tent with a suitcase jammed in front of the seat, where I was stretched out on a blanket, with another blanket suspended over me so that headlights and the highway lights wouldn't wake me. Sound was muffled, too. I remember how low, how far away, their voices sounded in the front seat when I heard them at all. When we crashed, I was asleep, snug in there, with no place to get thrown. The sound that woke me was awful: a roar, then screeching metal and breaking glass. My ears rang so hard I couldn't hear anything else. It was pitch-dark and things were pressing down on top of me. I opened my mouth to scream, and then I felt two pairs of hands groping for me. I thought: they're okay and they're going to pull me out. But it was the state troopers. Lights were flashing everywhere. Police cars and ambulances. A big milk truck with its engine on fire. Our car was crushed, but I had no cuts, just a bump on my head and a broken finger which--see--never healed right. It's still bent. When one of the ambulances drove away, I knew they were inside it. And I knew from what was left of the front of the car that they must be dead. It was horrible," he said, and here his voice broke. "All over the highway milk was streaming from the truck, which had been ripped open. It was ankle-deep in places, and bright white. Except in front of the car, where their bodies had been thrown, the milk had turned red."

Twelve months after Loren's disappearance, on New Year's Eve 1966, I left the city in the dead of night after scraping the ice from the windshield of my Impala. In November I had sold the house in Brooklyn to a couple who promised me that they would always keep a lookout for Loren, should he show up on the doorstep. That brick house, on the shady street in Bensonhurst with a dozen other brick houses, had been the only home he had ever known for longer than six months. The proceeds from the sale would enable me to pay off my student loan and go without a job for a few months.

At that time, I changed my name. My first name, too. Moving the letters around, I changed it to Mala. Of course I knew that Mala meant bad in Latin. In Spanish and Italian as well.

On the road, I felt cut loose, isolated--an island unto myself. It seemed for a while I was following my sister's example, though not her path. I drove south, stopping only for gas and, once, to eat, and spent the next night in Charleston. Then I veered west, never sleeping in the same bed for two nights running for a month. To Birmingham. Nashville. New Orleans. San Antonio. Amarillo. I zigzagged to California, then eastward to North Dakota, and south along the Mississippi, keeping as close to the river as I could, back to New Orleans, which I had liked the first time around more than anyplace else.

I stayed in New Orleans for four months, in a furnished room on Perdido Street. Though my money was holding out, I got a job, to be busy. It was a temporary position in a remote branch of the public library in the Saint-Eustace parish, filing books that were being taken out of circulation. Slotting them away on dust-caked shelves where they would never be opened again. Quite amazing books, some of them, like A Catalogue of Imperfections in Venetian Glass in the 17th Century; The Journal of Timothy Marlin, Physician to Prince Henry the Navigator; The Funereal Jewelry of the Chaldeans; and A Geological Survey of the Island of Remora.

I worked in the basement, which was called the morgue, and it was there I met a man named Zaren Eboli. He was an arachnologist, writing a book about the arboreal, cannibal spiders of the Caribbean, which I felt sure would one day be shelved beside these other curiosities by one of my successors. Within a week, I went to work for Eboli, in his old, three-story, faded blue clapboard house on the river. It was my knowledge of Latin, primarily, that had led him to hire me on the spot. Every afternoon I catalogued the dead spiders preserved in their jars and fed the live ones in their terrariums.

On my first night in New Orleans I lay awake under the rough sheet on a narrow iron bed. The bed was pushed up against the wall, and through the window I looked across the street at the old asylum that was now a dance hall. Now, even when I slept at night, I didn't dream. In fact, the moment I left New York I stopped having those dreams about Loren writing to me in Latin. When he filled my thoughts, as he often did, I heard only the language of guilt and remorse, spoken dully in my own voice.

It was nearly dawn, and through the parted venetian blinds I could see the first pale blue light reflecting off the tall windows of the dance hall. All night a fine drizzle had been falling, and as the light slowly shifted, now orange, now yellow, across the trees, glistening in the wet leaves, I turned against the wall in my cramped bed and began to cry, clutching and digging my nails into the blanket and biting the sheet to stifle my sobs. Crying as I had never heard Loren cry, not when my mother died, or even when he had finished telling me in the diner how it was he hadn't been killed along with Luna and Milo. Instead, he had turned to the window beside our booth and with his index finger in the thick vapor drew a face like his own with hands clapped over the ears, no mouth, and closed eyes below which he dotted tears, all down the cheeks.

Brooklyn

As the elevator lurched to a stop, I was suddenly sure I would never again return to my grandmother's house.

The previous night I had found Alma hunched over the dining room table at two A.M. in the dim rays of the overhead lamp. I was on my way to the kitchen for a glass of milk to help me sleep when I stopped short in the foyer, and gazing across the living room, saw her in the small alcove that was our dining room.

Wearing an old green bathrobe, her long hair tucked over one shoulder, she was lost in concentration, scratching away at a legal pad with a well-chewed pencil. She was massaging her forehead with the fingers of her free hand and tapping her feet nervously. Beside her, in an ashtray filled with stubs, a cigarette was burning. In the living room she had left the television on, the blank screen flickering with snow. A glass of wine, untouched, was on the table beside the easy chair where she had been sitting. She must have gotten up impulsively, I thought, to do whatever it was she was doing on that pad.

I watched her for a long time. After she had smoked another cigarette and crumpled and tossed away a few more pages from the pad, I called out her name as I entered the living room. She was startled, and turning to me, covered the legal pad with her arm. In the morning I would find one of the crumpled pages under the table: a tortured page or computations, figures everywhere, many of them crossed out, at the center of which was a list of expenditures--rent, utilities, car insurance, food, clothing, medical--below my name and hers. She had been trying to draw up a bare-bones budget for the life she thought we might be sharing. It pained me at that moment to think of her plight: twenty-one years old, with barely any money and her whole life ahead of her, suddenly burdened with what must have felt like a bag of bricks around her neck. After I had smoothed out that page, it was hard standing there in the dining room, watching the sun, the color of ice, rise through the frozen trees, and trying to understand how Alma must feel. At the bottom of the page there was a small annotation, obviously an afterthought to all the arithmetic: Find a job & learn to cook.

I hardly knew Alma, but I had always liked her in the way kids like relatives they seldom see. She was beautiful, smooth and elegant in her movements, with piercing blue eyes, long chestnut hair, and lips that made the back of my neck tingle whenever she planted a kiss on my cheek. To me she had always been a mysterious, even exotic figure. Wearing sunglasses and a suede coat and a beret when she came home, and always some flashy earrings. She smoked and played blues records on the old phonograph in her room, and after one or two nights she'd be gone. Probably I liked her for the very reasons my grandmother so disapproved of her. Alma certainly didn't like to cook: this was one of my grandmother's pet grievances about her. As well as the fact that Alma didn't relish housekeeping in general, or socializing with my grandmother's friends, or family holidays, or attending church. My grandmother's all-purpose modifier for Alma was "no-good." When she was feeling more generous, she limited herself to "wild."

I, on the other hand, could do no wrong in my grandmother's eyes. I enjoyed keeping my room in order (how could I not when having a room at all was such a novelty) and raking leaves and drying dishes and even going to church, where I loved listening to the choir sing hymns. I was at that time, in my Brooklyn life, a quiet and orderly boy who had already had a bellyful of being tossed around on rough seas during my years with Luna and Milo.

All the more reason that I should so admire Alma's attitude. And her independence, which was so much more solid and real to me than Luna's scattershot rebelliousness that never took her anywhere. Luna was constantly returning home and then taking off again in a huff. Alma just stayed away. And when she did show up, say for Christmas, she never took the bait when my grandmother tried to provoke her. About her studies: You can't become a priest, yet all you study is Latin; her private life: Your sister had bad taste in men, too, but at least one of them married her (I was still trying to figure that one out); and her appearance: If that skirt gets any shorter, and you grow your hair any longer, you won't need a skirt at all. I realized soon enough that Alma hadn't always been so composed in the face of such attacks, that she had come by her detachment the hard way--after years of heated arguments and recriminations--and I respected her all the more for it. Despite my dependence on, and loyalty to, my grandmother, I resented her meanness toward Alma. I had developed bonds with my grandmother, I loved her, but I also felt most uncomfortable with her when Alma was around. So I kept my mouth shut and, to make it easier on myself, stayed out of the way--even out of the house--during Alma's infrequent visits. This was another reason we felt like such strangers when we were thrown together for that brief period after my grandmother's death.

My room in that house had been Luna's room before she ran off with Milo. It still had the same pale blue walls and blue drapes, the narrow bed and low chest of drawers of matching cherry wood, and the full-length mirror screwed to the back of the door where Luna had primped herself and combed her hair. That afternoon, before Alma and I left for the planetarium, I dressed before that mirror. There were many things my grandmother had done for me in my two and a half years with her which were brand-new to me and for which I hope she knew I was grateful: laying out a hot supper, however bland, every night; buying me new shoes and sneakers in the fall; and, unlike Luna, making sure that the shirts I wore to school were not only laundered, but also the right size. I pulled on the last of these from my top drawer, a blue turtleneck, creased neatly where she had folded down the sleeves and tucked them under.

I heard Alma start up her car in front of the house, so I hurried, throwing on my pea coat and pulling on my woolen cap. As I locked the front door, she was gunning the engine, trying to get the heater warm, her breath misting up the windshield and the car's exhaust fumes sputtering into the snowbank along the curb. She had the radio turned on, and the announcer went from the escalation of troops in Vietnam--fifty thousand to be shipped out right after Christmas--to the launching that morning of the Pioneer 6 satellite from Cape Kennedy. I had seen the satellite on television the night before, atop a tall white rocket on the brightly lit launchpad, and now I closed my eyes and imagined it streaking out of the earth's atmosphere.

After lunch, during the drive to the planetarium, we hardly talked. There were snow flurries, and then it snowed harder, but the snow wasn't sticking on the highway. Alma seemed far away, rarely looking away from the road. I was sure she was still preoccupied with those figures I had seen on the scratch sheet, still trying to make it all add up in her head so that the two of us wouldn't end up in the poorhouse.

Just before she parked the Impala in a lot near the planetarium, I felt I had to speak. "Alma," I said, "I wanted you to know that Grandma loved you, even if she didn't say so anymore."

Her eyebrows went up. "It's okay if she didn't love me," she replied. Then she softened her voice, and added, "But you may be right. Maybe she did in her own way."

I nodded.

"The fact is, Loren, she was a different person after you came into her life."

I wasn't sure this was true, but I said nothing.

"You know," Alma went on, "Mom and I got off to such a bad start. She never saw my father again before I was born. She must have been angry about that--frustrated, at the very least--but she never talked about it, ever. She just held all that in, and then she and I went at it over the years."

I thought about this. "I don't know my father, either. You know, my real father. Maybe he's dead, too, and that's why I was put up for adoption."

She switched off the ignition and dangled the keys thoughtfully. "Maybe so. But, you know, sometimes I feel like I know my father just as if I'd met him."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, it's like I actually remember him." She was gazing out the window. "I spent so much time trying to imagine what he was like." She patted my shoulder. "But that's because I had nobody else. That won't happen to you. You'll have other people to love."

Again I nodded my assent, though I was thinking: And who will they be, these people I'm going to love? It felt like, in ten years, I had already used them all up.

 
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Excerpted from A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher. Copyright © 2000 by Nicholas Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Dial, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.