Empty Sky Chapter 12 – Shem

A dog and his boy

Read Empty Sky Chapter 11 – Dr. Lupicen and Ann

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Two men, one shaved bald, tall, thin and quick like a whip and the other a fireplug on legs with a jet black ponytail halfway down his broad back, both in tailored, navy-blue pinstripe suits and wearing hand-made, alligator-skin shoes so polished they reflected the lights marking the aisle, made their way from the locomotive through the tender to the back of the train. The whip would walk a few long, waspish steps, wait, then spin the gold and diamond pinky ring on his right hand until the fireplug caught up. When the fireplug reached him the whip would walk a few more long, waspish steps, wait and spin his ring again.

The fireplug strolled, his hands clasped in front of his chest as if in prayer, his eyes skimming over his knuckles as they evaluated, the bands of the two turquoise rings he wore — one on each ring finger — clicking sometimes as he walked. He passed no one without reaching out to their carotid and checking for a pulse; conductors, stewards, clerks, passengers. It didn’t matter.

The fireplug’s slow methodicity and attention to detail frustrated the whip who released his frustration by aiming a small but powerful ruby laser into the lens of the security cameras while he waited for his partner to catch up.

“Christ, look at this place. What did Pangiosi use again?”

“Ambien. That’s what he had us dump in the food service trucks. It makes you sleep and wake up without feeling groggy. ‘Far as everyone on the train is concerned, they’ll all think they probably had too much to drink.”

“Do you have to test every mother’s son?” The whip broke protocol and used names in an attempt to make the fireplug move faster. “We’re supposed to get McPherson to Pangiosi before morning, you know.”

The fireplug stopped and stared at the whip who turned away before the fireplug answered. “We have plenty of time. Besides, we find one dead person, we got trouble.”

“Didn’t you tell me once something about your grandfather teaching you to help people die?”

The fireplug nodded as he worked. “Not exactly. He taught me to sing them from this world to the next, to carry the souls of the dead so they’d find peace.”

“Happy hunting ground stuff?”

“Something like that.”

“You believe in that stuff?”

“I don’t believe in much of anything anymore.”

“Yeah. Ditto that.”

The fireplug continued his slow inspection. The whip tapped his foot at the rear door to the car.

The fireplug stopped and looked up. “I wonder if these people dream.”

The whip broke protocol a second time. “John, who gives a shit. Pangiosi gave us an order. We carry it out.”

John stopped. His arms folded over an expansive chest.

The whip looked out a window and spun his gold and diamond pinky ring. “Sorry.”

John’s prayerful hands went back to work.

Shem twitched himself awake. His head rose up and he sniffed the air. A scent, something from deep dog memory, canine memory, canid memory, canis memory. He leapt off the bunk and growled. A door opened in the bedroom suite, a door only dogs, only canines, only the line that first walked before man then behind then beside could see, sworn under the first full moon to watch for such doors because humans, the canids knew, would grow to forget.

The door closed. Whatever had been there had been warned away by flashing eyes, by baring teeth.

He jumped back on the bunk. As he circled to lay down he remembered the Little Master had gone. He looked across the suite to the other cot. The Great Master snored lazily like an old Alpha in the tall grass on a hot summer day.

Shem scratched his ear with a hind paw then sniffed his genitals. He rested his head over his paws, flopped to his side and stretched on the mattress. The entire bed was his!

Glorious His!

A few minutes later he, like the Great Master, snored like an Alpha in the tall grass.

***
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Empty Sky Chapter 11 – Dr. Lupicen and Ann

We have children so we can admire ourselves in someone else.

Read Empty Sky Chapter 10 – The Arctic Night


Dr. Capoçek Lupicen sat at his desk in the dark, an oversize computer screen’s dim afterglow lighting his face. His left hand arched over the keyboard, his long, thin fingers resting on a large red trackball. A switching panel stood to the right of the screen, its red lights reflecting off his glasses making it appear that an ovoid headed demon with large red eyes stared at him from his computer. Other labs had virtual displays and keyboards. Dr. Lupicen preferred the human touch keyboards, screens, and trackballs afforded him..

A small, old, worn, black and white photograph of two boys — one about ten years older than the other and with similar features — in a silver frame held pride of place, standing between his keyboard and screen. He’d check something on his screen then look at the two boys smiling out of the photograph, gently tap the older boy’s face, smile then return his gaze to the computer screen, as if confirming the screen’s information with the boy in the picture before continuing.

He cupped his narrow chin in his right hand and reread what he’d entered in his journal, evaluating every sentence, every thought. He’d release his chin and cup his ear, letting his fingers beat a mindless staccato on his short gray hair as words were considered, phrases whispered, accuracy determined. When a passage dissatisfied him he’d lift his glasses from underneath and massage his sharply etched pince-nez. Often he would adjust himself on his seat as if a slightly different position clarified his thoughts. The sharp citrus and pine aromas of laboratory cleaning solvents tinctured his nose and he’d exhale sharply. Sometimes the scent of the stronger, industrial solvents would waft through his lab and he’d pull back, hurry to pull a handkerchief out of his pants pocket before he sneezed, wipe his nose, absently return the handkerchief to his pocket and continue writing and editing.

Each night he came here to enter the day’s events into his journal. Each night, after all the postdocs and grad students and assorted degree candidates and research associates had left and the sun had set, he quietly unlocked the door and tiptoed in as if he had no right to enter the lab his research funded. He would look right then left then right again, looking first through then over his glasses as if the clear vision they granted might prove a lie. He never turned on a light, all old habits from an even older part of the world, from a place and time when silence and stealth were the secrets to life itself.

Satisfied with his entry, he sat back and put his hands in his lap.

Footsteps approached in the hall. That would be Mr. William Murphy — the janitor the students referred to as “Wild Bill” because he was often slightly drunk, dressed like a woodsman regardless of season or weather, and sang to himself quietly but offkey — working slowly, methodically, intentionally, all things Dr. Lupicen admired and approved of. Sometimes, when he’d finished making his entries early, he would invite Mr. Murphy in to chat, to sit and share some tea. Mr. Murphy was a good listener, smiled and nodded at things he couldn’t understand, then said thank you, cleaned, dried and replace his cup on the shelf above the sink, shook hands and went about his ways.

Lupicen appreciated the quiet friendship.

But not tonight. Dr. Lupicen sat motionless until the casters under Wild Bill’s wringer bucket, the sloshing water, swishing mop, and Wild Bill’s own nasally singsong voice and the sharp smells of his cleansing chemicals echoed away.

Lupicen turned his chair to look out his lab’s western facing windows. His lab was the largest in Vail Hall, in the last cluster of academic buildings on the north side of the Dartmouth campus, and occupied the entire west side of the second floor.

A few cars could be seen under the lights of the parking lot behind the building. Trees created a small woods extending past the parking lot down several hundred yards past some roads and eventually to the Connecticut River. Across the river he saw the glow of Norwich and Thetford, Vermont, and beyond them the eastern faces of the central Green Mountains.

The faces were lit by the moon rising over in the east. On the night his staff worked late he would take a moment from observing the people sleeping in the chambers he’d designed to watch the moon slide down behind those mountains.

The moon in the mountains.

Turning back to his computer, he tapped the trackball and the screen flickered to life. He logged out of his PC then toggled a switch on the panel beside the monitor. Its connection, along with the connections to the trackball and keyboard, went from the PC to the APS System 70v3 computer, resting like a plexus between the sleep chambers, its cables like the webbing of a fat, dark spider in the center of his lab.

His fingers moved the trackball as if he were cracking a safe. The screen lit up and a blue door appeared centered in a deep ocean background. He opened a drawer and pulled out a HUVRSA, a Heads Up Virtual Reality Sensory Accumulators helmet, two cybergloves and a cybersuit. He undressed and slid his mantis-thin body into the tight fitting head-to-toe cybersuit. His cybergloved left hand made a knocking motion in the air. On the computer screen his knocking became a cartoon balloon with the word “knock” repeated three times on the surface of the door.

“Ann? May I come in, dear girl? Hmm? May I come in?”

Nothing happened. He looked at the ’70’s dark display, then spoke directly into the HUVRSA’s voicelink. “Are you awake, Ann?”

***
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Empty Sky Chapter 10 – The Arctic Night

It may be cold but you’re not left out in the cold

Read Empty Sky Chapter 9 – Earl Pangiosi


Tom, Jamie, and Shem followed Jack through the upper level of the Lake Shore Limited’s SuperLiner Snack Coach. “Come on, gang, it’s not much further to the Viewliner. That’s where we’re sleeping.” Some five steps behind them, a nurse and two attendants followed sipping rootbeers and munching potato chips from crinkling cellophane bags.

Tom sneezed at a sudden whiff of diesel fumes. Everyone stopped. With no rhyme or reason to his narcolepsy, everyone prepared for another cascade.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.” His head fell forward and his eyelids fluttered. The attendants hurried forward as Tom straightened up. “Ha! Gotcha!”

The attendants smiled. Shem wagged his tail at the sudden activity. Jack muttered “Asshole” and Tom whispered back “Shithead.”

Jamie remained silent.

Jack reserved the last Viewliner rooms for the seven of them. The one closest to the rear door and the diaphragm-engulfed platform between cars — Jack explained it prevented people jumping or falling from the train when they moved between the cars — was a bedroom suite for the attendants, base medical and ambulance grade EMT supplies and equipment. Jack took the furthest in-train of the four, a standard bedroom. Jamie, Shem and Tom shared the next in-train, another bedroom suite. The nurse had the bedroom suite between the McPhersons and the attendants. The suite also contained a Lexicor MedTech NeuroSearch-24, 19 AC-coupled amplifiers, an Autonomy’s Frontalis recorder and more dedicated neuro diagnostics than most hospitals could afford.

Jack refused to take chances. When Tom slept he demonstrated intermittent trains of rhythmic spiked morphology waves. Tom’s body slept but not his brain. He closed his eyes and his fronto-orbital regions lit up like aircraft landing lights desperately seeking safe ground. When no such place appeared Tom’s brain turned the lights on brighter, intent that it existed and waiting to be found. That much neural horsepower required his autonomic nervous system to take over body functions completely. No distractions, nothing to interfere with making the search. Not Jack, his team nor anyone he shared the data with had seen anything like it.

Tom stopped at the door to his suite while Jamie and Shem walked in. He smiled at Jack. “Alas, to sleep. Perchance to dream.”

Jamie, already in bed with Shem beside him, watched Tom clean up and get under the covers. He listened for changes in his father’s breathing as Tom drifted off, wanting to be sure his father was there when he woke up, until the train’s steady ruddaRump ruddaRump ruddaRump rocked him to sleep, Shem curled up beside him.

***
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The Weight

Chance meetings leave us changed in unexpected ways

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“You’re a long way from home,” the waitress said. A little shopkeeper’s bell dingled as I closed the door behind me and I looked up it, wondering what kind of place this was.

“We’re more tavern than bar,” she said, answering my thought. She moved out from the shadows behind the bar to where I could see her clearly, her waitress’ apron tied neatly and knotted in front and a towel with blue edging slung over her shoulder. “More a way-station, actually.”

She was pretty in an older kind of way and I wasn’t sure I expected someone in their late thirties to – oh, even late – forties to be tending bar on an old country crossroads at the northern edge of the New York-Mass border. “With a name like The Mythic Center I’m not surprised,” I said.

I wasn’t even sure if it was a bar, but I’d gotten lost, it was nine-o’clock at night and this was the only place with lights on – hell, it was the only place, period – I’d seen since dusk. It was too dark, too late and I was too tired to keep hiking through country I hadn’t explored in thirty-five years.

“Been traveling long?” she asked, making conversation. I was the only other person in the place so I’m sure she didn’t mind the company.

I nodded and smiled back, rubbing my hands against the cold they’d gathered in the day’s walking. I could have sworn I left the city in late summer but Fall seemed to come fast in my wake. I stood by the door and looked around. The place had a look that made me feel comfortable. It wasn’t really a bar. Like she said, more a tavern and out here, I could believe a way-station. And it wasn’t yuppified. The tables and chairs were light maple – all local and hand made, nothing imported and nothing with a machined #7 of 7,000 look. The place had a good, solid, well-worn feel about it. Whatever wasn’t maple – the paneling, the bar and stools, the booths – was oak, ash or thorn. Whoever owned The Mythic Center meant it to last and I chuckled as I realized the oxymoron in that. But everything seemed a little lonely with only the waitress cleaning up to keep the furniture and walls company. There were chess and checker boards on some of the tables, some tables had cribbage boards on them. I could tell serious gamers came here because the gaming tables had green shaded, metal poker lights suspended from the ceilings over them. Between those and the bar and booth lights, the place was well lit without being blinding, what I’d call soothing and never too much light unless you needed it.

One wall contained several racks of books and the opposite wall sported a genuine British competition style dart board, well used. I stared at it and my face must have lit up because the waitress asked, “Do you throw?”

I shook my head, no, although I walked over and lifted a dart from its rack. I ran my fingers over the flight feathers – again, no plastic and the darts were competition weighted. “No, just an admirer of good things built to last.”

She stopped drying down a Monopoly™ gaming table and stood up to look at me, one hand on a hip and twirling the damp towel with the other. “Thanks.”

The light over the table captured her in a spotlight and she let me take a long drink before she reached up for the chain and turned the light off. Salt&pepper hair that made a long, thick braid down her back, cerulean blue eyes that my dad used to call “ice-eyes”, a wide face with lots of freckles but no wrinkles except laugh lines, and no makeup to disturb any of it. When she smiled there was a gap in her front teeth and I caught myself thinking of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Wife, then quickly shook my head.

It showed, I guess. The way she smiled at me, running her tongue over the gap in her teeth absentmindedly, looking down and to the side as she shook her head.

Under a full length apron she wore a blue tanktop matching her eyes. Her jeans were torn at the knees and faded from work, not from some designer’s idea of what work did to good clothing and red hightop sneakers like I use to wear as a kid.

She quoted Bob Seger’s Nightmoves, singing it like a question, “Little too tall? Could’a used a few pounds?”

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Peter Frampton – The Weight

His songs helped me write my history

Peter Frampton, in case you haven’t heard, is doing a farewell tour.

It seems many of the legends of my youth are doing farewell tours. Elton John comes to mind. The Moody Blues will never appear as The Moody Blues again. Such happens if you live long enough. Susan (wife/partner/Princess) and I are spending this year going to final tour concerts.

Bittersweet, that.

Eariler this week we saw Peter Frampton in concert. This is the third time for Susan, fourth for me. We saw him together when he played in David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour, then long ago when he played at an abandoned drive-in theater in Ogunquit, Maine (the first stop in a comeback. He was testing material. And it was bittersweet then. In the middle of the concert he had to put on glasses to read something. He apologized to us. I remember everybody waving cyalumes, not lighters). He’s still got it. He has neurologic challenges that are making it difficult for him to perform. Couldn’t tell by his performance. And gracious as always…

He opened by letting everybody know they could video and take pix of his first three songs, then he’d prefer if we all simply sat and enjoyed.

We did.

But this post is about the first time I saw Frampton perform. I was already a big fan. I told anybody and everybody that he was underrated, that he had serious chops, pay attention.

And we’re talking the early to mid 1970s.

The first time I saw Frampton perform, I was hiking The Dragon’s Spine and came down to resupply. That meeting stayed with me and became a focal point in my Pushcart nomimated story, The Weight. Here’s the excerpt that deals with my meeting Frampton many years ago (read the full story).
Continue reading “Peter Frampton – The Weight”