hubble

CHAPTER 1

It was Labor Day and I was listening to Danny and the Rats play at Vol’s Lounge in Kokomo, Indiana, because I could not abide the bedspread in my room at the Motel 6 on Jackson Street. I was on the road. I am always “on the road,” even, it seems, on my days off. But you tell me how many medical encyclopedias they’re buying door-to-door in South Michigan these days and I will show you one salesman who would drive a thousand miles out of his way just to reclaim a $1,500 IOU from a semi-educated barracuda in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

     I’d already spent $5.69 that day on Slim Jims, rotisserie burritos and a sack of pepping powder which, I swear, had just made me more irritable and sleepy. Hence my stopover in Kokomo. Otherwise, I would definitely have pressed on to at least Seelyville, a town I knew well.

     I checked the clock hanging above the cash register, which I saw was just a cosmetic touch. It was only the minute hand that moved. The hour was stuck on six, like one of those runaway clocks on corporatized church fronts counting down the seconds to Kingdom Come. And it wasn’t really hanging either, it was just sort of balanced there. 

     Charley B., who had made me a not halfway bad Flaming Piscola, made a comment about the worthless clock. He said it was spinning a mile a second. I could only wonder what Charley B. would have said if we’d been living on Saturn. Or Pluto. On Pluto I would have had a few days to kill in Vol’s! A Labor Day a month long!

     Charley B. checked his watch and sighed and said it was only ten.

     Only? Had I wasted so many hours in here with Danny and the Rats? Without pursuing a single lead? In a way it made sense. The darkened tables still hadn’t filled. And which one of these lovelorn country seeds was a secret friend of cut-rate medical scholarship? No, sometimes I thought I’d be better off selling hands to hold or noble companionship in a bottle. Your average Midwesterner was just not fertile ground for the kind of medical illumination I was peddling.   

     I took out my daybook and winced as I added one Flaming Piscola to my expense account. I closed the book and felt for my travel reading, Colonel Sim Frank’s long-forgotten masterpiece on the various temperaments of comet gas, The Silo and the Furnace. A rare first edition in the now defunct Wertham Hill Pocket Geniuses Library with the oatmeal-and-teal cloth cover the Colonel would later come to despise, it rarely left my billfold pocket.

     I left a dollar on the bar for Charley B. because he’d done his best. I took one last look around Vol’s for a lone hypochondriac or a dissection fiend in need of a good toilet read, but I tell you there was just nobody. 

     Then something happened.

     I was getting evil looks from a little fellow in a vinyl booth by the stage. He wore a sleek blue suit and vest of finest wool and a fluffy orange corduroy cap. I might as well add a voluptuous brunette to his collection of finery because he had one, rubbing her head against his little man’s shoulder as he all but held court over a table of hoodlums clearly much older than him.

     And he was sneering me at.

     I stood.

     I patted my stomach.

     It was hanging low again, dammit.

     I said to Charley B., “They’re getting younger and younger, aren’t they, Charley? What’s the drinking age in Indiana anyway?”

     Charley B. didn’t bother looking at the booth. It might not have made any sense to Charley B. anyway, what I’d said, because Charley B. was in his late twenties, a good fifteen years younger than I was. Perhaps this was nothing new to him.

     Charley B. poured me a friendly drop of pisco for the road and said, “You really think they’ve got aliens and shit up there?”

     My eyes goggled. Was Charley B. familiar with the Colonel after all? Had he too been pondering the implications of a Labor Day on Pluto? I sat back down.

     “Aliens, Charley? Beings. And I certainly do. I have practically seen them with my own eyes.”

     “For real?”

     “For real. Charley, do you have any idea who wrote this book? What advanced thought went into it? I’m talking about Colonel Sim Frank, Astronaut of the Mind.”

     I thought this would have at least rung a bell with Charley B., considering his obvious interest. But I was mistaken.

     He said, “You’ve seen them?”

     “Seen what, Charley?”

     “The beings.”

     “Of course I have. With my Hubble II Personal Observatory. This is the highest powered home astronomy unit for sale in North and South America. You might want to add Japan, Europe and Africa to that list too, Charley, because I’m convinced this is the case. There are 573 men in the continental United States who own a Hubble II. I will be 574.”

     Charley B. nodded. He seemed to get it now.

     “So, you’re a scientist or something?”

     “A seeker, Charley. When I’m not holed up in my Hubble, I sell knowledge door-to-door.”

     I offered Charley B. a monogrammed ashtray, five units of which I kept in my selling kit at all times along with five monogrammed oven mitts. Greetings from Lyle Meeks, Your Saunders Medical Encyclopedia Man! It was either that or a sock full of peppermint sucking candies, and you can bet at least part of my winning strategy hinged on this willingness of mine to invest in my shrewder clientele.

     “I’m not talking about fuzzy cloud faces I’ve drawn onto the rings of Saturn when high on airplane glue, Charley. That’s what you’d get if you dipped into Dodge Carson’s Astronomy in 30-Second Glances. Let me ask you this. How much of the universe can you take in in thirty seconds when it stretches for millions of years at the speed of light in every direction? But that is Carson for you. Have you ever heard someone call Sir Stephen Hawking a sissy? That would be Carson again. No, this is the real thing. I’m talking about verifiable autonomous energy fields. A veritable extraterrestrial heartbeat.”

     I hadn’t run such an exhausting pitch since the early days of our Modern Giants of Cardiothoracic Surgery series. Charley B. finally lifted his head at the booth of delinquents. He poured me out another drop of pisco.

     “Must be expensive.”

     If only he knew!

     “The Silo and the Furnace? You’re unfortunately correct about that, Charley. Today it’s a collector’s item. When I bought mine, it was your standard B. Dalton fare.”

     “Your telescope,” Charley B. said.

     “My home observatory?”

     “The Hubble.”

     “That’s right. I’ve been paying mine off since 1999. That’s what, ten years? But it’s worth it, Charley, every non-deductible penny. Think about it this way. Besides notorious tax evaders, what other kind of club includes only 573 men?”

     Charley B. nodded, but I feared I’d finally spoken over his head with all my talk of energy fields and exclusionary clubs. I finished my pisco and stood.

     “But I will get that money, Charley. As a matter of fact, I’m on my way to Arkansas to collect it as we speak. Medical encyclopedias won’t get you far in the world today, I’m afraid.”

     I was feeling all of a sudden wobbly and unmoored. My voice was loud and abrasive and ringing in my ears. Danny and the Rats had just run through the calamitous finale of their first set so there was a disorienting quality to the sound of the words. The murmured small talk of all those darkened tables had suddenly become big loud news and people were lifting their heads towards the stage like sniffing rats.

     Then I noticed the little thug in the vinyl booth.

     I noticed he was gone.