Sources of Luminosity in the Deep Sea

[From the vault]

Aspen was forever summer in Gordon’s mind, with pale blue sky overhead and Kyra on his arm.  But today, two years later, the summer sky was hidden behind a multi-hued blue and gray blanket of low-hung clouds.  Thin curtains of mist floated in the air, rippling silently in the almost non-existent breeze.  Water dripped from leaves onto flats of pansies that a grandmotherly woman in a green plaid apron was gently placing in planters in the middle of the bricked pedestrian mall.

It was early, not quite ten o’clock, and few people were out.  Shops were just opening.  A sleepy-eyed woman hurried by, fussing with keys and clutching a cup of coffee.  Its bitter aroma cut through the musty smell of wet earth and reminded Gordon that he had skipped breakfast.

The art gallery where Kyra had play-acted was now something filled with stuffed animals–foxes, deer, coyotes, and a bear on hind legs craning over the backs of the others, all staring at Gordon.  The place was all menace and teeth, with hard glass eyes that followed as he passed.

He crossed the street to the realty office, now vacant, with dirty windows and a few yellowed flyers left behind.  Gordon looked in, cupping his eyes with his hand so he could see into the unlit interior.  The scale model of the town was still there.  Perhaps it was too big to move.  The rest of the office was abandoned.

The restaurant was ahead, on the corner.  The oversize faux antique green leaf was still hanging over the sidewalk outside.  He was glad it was still there.  He stopped under the sign and reached up to touch it reverently.  Kyra had touched the same spot, with his help.

The sidewalk tables were vacant in the morning damp, the chairs stacked along the wall.  A waiter lounged against the door, watching Gordon.  He was a young man, with short spiked hair and no neck.  He had a row of earrings in his ear and wore a t-shirt that said “Some attitudes require altitude.”  It looked like it had been slept in.  Gordon disliked him on sight.  He looked like someone named Bo, or even Jim Bob, if this had been Alabama.  Or Biff.  Gordon smiled.  The name fit.  He hated it.

Seeing Gordon was waiting, the unknowingly christened Biff waved him in and then disappeared inside without looking back.  Gordon waited until the kid reappeared.  He looked a bit pissed, which suited Gordon.  Gordon pointed to the last table on the sidewalk, the one nearest the corner.  “I want that one.”

Biff rolled his eyes.  “It’s raining.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Sorry, man.  There ain’t nothing I can do.  You’ve got to sit inside.”

Gordon pulled out several bills from his wallet.  He held them up for Biff to see.  “I want that table.  And you’re not getting these, until I sit there.  So what’s it going to be?”

Biff shrugged, pocketed the bills, and dragged a chair to the table.  He added a second one and toweled the table and chairs more or less dry.  Then he pulled out Gordon’s chair for him.  Gordon sat gingerly, feeling a damp chill seep through his pants.  Biff offered Gordon a menu, but he ignored it.

“Herbed vermicelli with eggplant,” Gordon said.

“That ain’t on the menu–”  Biff stopped when he saw the look on Gordon’s face.  “All right, I’ll see what I can do,” he said and left.

Seated on the corner, Gordon could see the chair lift cables as they disappeared up the slope of Aspen Mountain into the low clouds.  They weren’t running and one chair hung suspended just below the cloud deck.  It looked fragile, too small to be safe.  He had planned to ride the lift to the top of the slope, a too-small penance for Kyra, but was glad now they weren’t running.

Biff sulked about, poking his head outside periodically to check on Gordon.  Eventually he brought Gordon’s meal.  “Herbed vermicelli.”  He sat it before Gordon with a flourish.  A strong scent of basil rose from the plate.  “With eggplant.”  He seemed pleased with himself.  Gordon looked up at him.

“Hell, I didn’t think you could do that,” said Biff.  “Just make up a dish.  But they knew how to do it.  Imagine that.”  Gordon ignored him and started to eat.  Biff stood awkwardly, then refilled Gordon’s glass.

“So, everything ok, then?”

“Fine,” said Gordon.  “Very good.”  Biff fussed a bit more, then turned to leave.  Gordon spoke to his back.  “I’m not crazy, you know.”

Biff snorted and returned.  “Let me guess.  You’ve been here before, right?  At this table?”

“With a friend,” said Gordon.

“So where’s your friend?”

“Dead.  I killed her.”  Gordon pointed up the street toward the lifts.  “Right up there.”

“Killed her?  No shit?”  said Biff.  He stepped toward the street to see better.  “What’d you do?”  Gordon glared over his glasses at the kid.  “Oh, I see.  You’re kidding, right?” Biff asked.  “About killing her, I mean.”

“Yeah,” Gordon said.  “I’m kidding.”  The last thing he needed was to talk to the police.  “It was breast cancer.”

The newsletter had given no details other than the institutional obit.  It is our sad duty to inform you of the death of our dear colleague, Kyra Brandt, from complications of chemotherapy.  But Gordon knew.   He remembered the feel of her breast in his hand, the feel of evil flowing from him to her.  She had never complained about the aborted embrace and he was grateful for that, even though he had never told her.

“That’s too bad,” said Biff.

“Go to hell.”

* * *

“It all started when they found these shrimp with eyes.”  Standing in front of her poster at the workshop, Kyra had breathlessly explained her research while he scribbled notes.  “You see, these guys came from so far down that there shouldn’t be any light.  So why did they have fully functional eyes?  I mean what were they looking at?”

Kyra was young, at least half his age and looked much younger.  She talked with animation, her head bobbing so she had to keep brushing hair from her eyes.

Gordon was more interested in the curve of her neck than the eyes of shrimp.  She had a way of tilting her head when she spoke that exposed her neckline.  He thought he could just make out her pulse beneath its skin.  In the back of his mind he could hear Sid’s latest warning.  Something about swimming the straight and narrow and keeping his nose above water.  Gordon smiled in memory.  His editor was famous for mangled metaphors.

Then he realized that Kyra had stopped talking and was watching him.  He thought that she had seen his surreptitious glances at her, but she hadn’t noticed.  She was simply waiting for dramatic effect.  He raised his eyebrows in question.

“Well,” she said, emphasizing her point with her hands, “it turns out there’s lots of light down there.”  He expressed the appropriate level of surprise.  “Yeah, me too,” she said.  “You just have to know where to look.”  She started counting on her fingers.  “First of all, there’s bioluminescence.”

“Bio…?”

“…luminescence…e…n…c…e.  It’s where living things have glowing parts.  Like fireflies.”

“So you’ve found fireflies at the bottom of the sea?”

She laughed.  “Something like that.  Turns out these shrimp not only have eyes, but they also have little rows of glowing dots on their backs.  We think it has something to do with sex.  You know, they have to have some way of finding each other.”  Gordon agreed that was important.  Then she continued counting on her fingers.  “And the deep sea thermal vents give off a lot of light too.  That’s where a lot of these guys were found.  And sea water is naturally radioactive, so it glows at a low level too.”

Gordon put away his notebook and tried making small talk, asking her how she liked Snowmass.

“I love it!  But I wish I could’ve visited Aspen.  I’ve been here all week, just around the mountain, but never made it into town.”

Gordon wanted to say more but a crowd washed around them, wanting to know more about deep sea light sources, and Gordon was swept away.

That night he dreamed he was floating in blackness.  In the distance were tiny flashes of light, drawing him nearer.  When he got closer he saw diaphanous figures with long arching necks and glowing bodies beckoning to him.  But before he could move, a cold dark massive shape rushed by him, scattering points of light in a frenzy of destruction.  He felt something bump his arm and turned to see Kyra’s lifeless body floating beside him.

At the airport later that morning Gordon stepped into chaos.  Passengers stood in knots of four and five.  Piles of luggage were stacked about.  Tense threads of conversation floated about.  All morning flights from Denver were cancelled.  Last night a hailstorm had swept through Denver and damaged thirty-seven planes on the ground, almost United’s and Continental’s entire combined small commuter fleet.  The four o’clock flight was still on the board, but the ticket agent confided to Gordon that he didn’t expect anything to leave Aspen before the next morning.

Gordon felt a hand on his elbow.  He turned to see Kyra smiling at up at him.  She steered him through the crowd to the America West ticket counter.  “They have a flight coming in at two forty-five from Phoenix,” she whispered.  “I rebooked on it.  I think there’s one seat left, if you hurry.”

She waited while Gordon booked the seat.  It was, indeed, the last.  They left as the harried clerk took names for the standby list.

“Thanks,” he said.

“I should’ve charged you a finder’s fee.”

He looked at his watch.  It was almost ten o’clock.  “In that case, how about that trip into Aspen?  We’ve got some time to kill.  I’ll buy lunch and we’ll be even.”

“Great!”

Gordon paid an elderly skycap to watch their bags and they took a bus into Aspen.  The morning sky was brilliant and blue, washed clean by the evening rain.  After they arrived, Kyra ran ahead like a child.  Gordon found her waiting outside a store front.  She pointed at the name, ‘J. D. Pawsworth, A Gourmet Pet Shop.’

“I didn’t realize you liked dogs,” he said.  “How many–”

A tinkling bell on the door cut him off as she went inside.  He followed.  “How many dogs do you have?” he asked when he caught up with her.

“None.  Jay says we should wait until we get a place of our own.  We live in an apartment, you see, and pet deposits are high.  But I like to look.”

“Jay?”

“My husband.”  She sorted through a shelf of coffee mugs.

“I didn’t realize you were married.”

She waved her ring at him.  “Almost a year now.”  Gordon mentally kicked himself.  He hadn’t even thought to look.  “And you?” she asked.

“Just me, now.  My wife left five, six years ago.”

Kyra turned and cast a pitying look at him.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, me too.  There was a disagreement.”

It didn’t help that Kyra was so young, or that she looked a lot like the child–no, that was his wife’s description–the young woman that had turned up in his bed.  Afterward, once the shit hit the fan, Sid had shared some advice.  “Don’t let it get you down.  Remember, you’re only as old as you feel.  That’s why I always try to feel twenty-year olds.”  He laughed at his own joke, then continued more seriously.  “Look, we’re friends, right?  So I’m going to give you some advice.  Buddy boy, you’re going to get in some real trouble–not just divorce mind you, I’m talking jail time here–if you don’t aim your sights a little higher.  This ain’t goddamned Lolita for Christ sake.  Remember, big squirrels don’t go after little acorns.”

Gordon looked down at Kyra.  “Let’s just say we didn’t see eye to eye.”

“That’s because you’re so tall.”  Kyra stood on tip toe.  “See, it’s hard to see eye to eye with you.”  She settled back on her heels and turned to look at dog treats.  She spoke over her shoulder.  “Jay is short like me, that’s why we always agree.  But he doesn’t like to be called short.  I think it’s–”

“I’m hungry.”

Kyra turned and looked at him in surprise.  She held up a bone.  “You could munch on this.”

“I was thinking of something more substantial.  How about lunch?”

They selected the Bistro Verdente on the corner, with its large green leaf hanging over the sidewalk.  She jumped to tap the metal sign as they walked under it, but missed it.  “Give me a boost,” she said.  So he stood behind her and lifted her by her firm waist when she jumped.  The sign gave a dull thud when she slapped it.  A waitress waiting at the door, elegant in black skirt and starched white blouse, clapped her hands and Kyra bowed extravagantly.

They were the first customers of the day and Kyra insisted on a sidewalk table on the corner.  From the table they could see the chair lifts that inched up Aspen Mountain as it towered over the town.  Even without snow, the slopes were impressive.  Kyra made a face when Gordon ordered a burger.  She was a vegetarian and ordered vermicelli with eggplant.

After lunch, they walked along the mall.  At the Quakin’ Aspen Fine Art Gallery she tossed him a quick glance and then went in.  The floors were hardwood and their feet echoed as they walked in.  A young lady with neon red hair looked up as they came in.  She was on the phone but waved at them.  Kyra breezed past stacks of oil paintings and rushed upstairs.  Her feet clattered up the stairs and then clomped about overhead.

The redhead hung up the phone and came to Gordon, hand outstretched.  She wore a business suit, but also sported a diamond nose stud.  Gordon was about to go into journalist mode, faking a story, when Kyra saved him by clattering back down the stairs.  She stopped halfway and bent down to look at them.  Her hair hung down one side of her face.

“Up here!  You’ve got to see this.”

When he got to the top of the stairs Kyra rushed up and slipped her arms in Gordon’s.  He smelt a light, floral scent.  Then she showed him her find.  It was a male torso in bronze, mounted on granite.  It was an Adonis, bronzed male perfection, tense and poised, seemingly ready to leap from its pedestal.  Gordon felt like wet laundry in comparison.

“Isn’t it perfect, Dah-ling?”  She drew the word out in an Ava Gabor imitation.  She nestled her head against his shoulder and nodded at the redheaded agent who had just come up the stairs.  “It’s exactly what we were looking for.”

“Yes… Darling.”  He almost choked on the word, but enjoyed the feeling of her body and slipped his arm about her shoulder.  “But… what did you have in mind?”

She slipped out of his arms and ran to stand next to the sculpture.  “In front of the patio, of course.  You know the big open space I can’t do anything with?  We’ll put this guy there.  He’ll be perfect, don’t you think?”

Gordon walked around it as if trying to decide.  He pointed at the placard on the pedestal.  “Um, Sweetheart.  Have you seen the price?”

“Of course, silly.  But that’s just for show.  I’m sure they will work something out for us.  Won’t you?”  This was directed to the agent who assured them a small discount might be arranged.

“Well?” asked Kyra, staring at Gordon.

He didn’t know what to say and just nodded.  Kyra jumped to give him a quick kiss on the lips.

“I love you!” she said and then vanished down the stairs.

Gordon look at the agent in embarrassment.  She coughed politely and smiled broadly.  “She has excellent taste,” the woman said.  “You are a very lucky man.”  They headed for the stairs.  “The paperwork won’t take long.  I assume you will want it delivered.  Do you live nearby?”

“Well–“

Kyra’s voice came up the stairs.  “I saw something that would go perfect with it.”  Then her head reappeared and addressed the agent.  “You will hold it for us?  It won’t take long.”  The agent promised to hold it.  “Great!  Don’t sell it!”  She disappeared down the stairs, then came back up and grabbed Gordon’s arm.  “Come on, Darling.  You’ve got to see this.”

She dragged Gordon down the stairs and out the door onto the street.  Gordon shrugged over his shoulder at the agent who was hurrying after.  “We’ll be back,” he shouted.  The agent waved and went back inside.

Alone outside, Kyra grinned at Gordon.  “You had me scared in there,” he said.

“Just keeping you on your toes.  It’s a game I like to play.  Glad to see you were up to it.”

“That was my whole retirement fund, just standing there, naked.”

“God, he was built, wasn’t he?”

Gordon grunted.  He didn’t want to be compared too closely with that kind of perfection.

“Now we have to find a house for that obscene monstrosity,” she said.  She skipped across the street to a Realtor’s office.  Gordon held the door for her and passed her through with his hand on the small of her back.  She flashed a smile at him.  A scale model of Aspen was laid out in the cavernous lobby.  Every street, building, and seemingly every tree was spread out under a three foot Aspen Mountain.  Kyra bounced about the table, letting the agent point out the main features.  She expressed interest in several properties and winked at Gordon as she pressed brochures into his hands.  Outside, she steered him to the base of the mountain.

She leaned her head on his arm as they walked.  “That was fun,” she said.  Then she stopped and looked up at him.  “I’m glad our flights were cancelled.  I finally got to see Aspen.  Thanks for coming with me.”

Gordon felt the world shrink to her upturned face.  He felt something special in her look.  Felt that he had only to reach out to end his loneliness, to have his own little firefly to hold close.  But he hesitated and she flitted away.

“Let’s take the lift,” she said over her shoulder.  She pointed at the lift station across the street.  “Let’s see the world from the top.”  Gordon eyed the chairs and shook his head.

“I don’t think so.  Those look a bit rickety to me,” he said.

“Please?”

“No… Sorry, I’m not good with heights.”

“Party pooper.”  She made a moue with her mouth and then look up at him through her lashes.  “Then what shall we do?”

In response, he grabbed her shoulders, hesitated, then pressed a kiss on her.  He wrapped an arm about her and pulled her close.  His hand slid onto her breast.  For a moment she opened to him, but only for a moment.  Then her mouth closed and her back stiffened.  She pushed herself away.

“What are you doing?” she asked.  Gordon said nothing.  She looked down at her blouse, still wrinkled from his hand.  She smoothed it, backed up a step.  Then another.  They stood, staring at each other.  Time stopped.  She turned and walked away, faster and faster until she was running.  A block away she stopped and looked back.  Gordon hadn’t moved.  She ran a hand through her hair.  Then she turned and walked out of sight around a corner.

* * *

Gordon gave up on his meal, pushing bits of pasta about his plate.  The drizzle had ended and the sky was growing lighter.  He watched a young girl, a true nymphet, approach.  Her navel winked at him under her half shirt, playing hide and seek over her pant line.  She saw him watching and grinned as she sauntered by.

“Damn, that’s some hot stuff.”  It was Biff, who had returned to clear the table.  He spoke loudly so she could hear.  She looked back over her shoulder and wiggled her ass.  Biff gave a low growl and she laughed as she walked on.

“Man, I wish I had a piece of that,” Biff said.

Gordon looked at the retreating figure.  He felt nothing.  “She’s a child,” he said.

“Long as she’s past puberty.  That’s all that counts.”

Gordon looked after her.  He still felt nothing.  It had been that way since Kyra.  No more fireflies.  His ocean was uniformly dark.  But at least he seemed to be cured of his private affliction.  He tilted his glass in the direction of the retreating girl and silently said “Thank you.”  He bitterly added that to the list of things he had never told Kyra.  Perhaps if he had followed her back to the airport, but he had been too ashamed.  He had spent the night in Aspen and flown out the next morning.

Biff finished clearing the table, leaving only the glass that Gordon still held in a half salute to the vanished girl.  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot,” he said.  “My boss was asking about the crazy guy sitting in the rain.  So I told him about your dead friend, and all.  Anyway, he says the meal is on the house.  Pretty good, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Gordon.  Biff waited a minute, but Gordon ignored him.  He left, and muttered “You’re welcome” as he walked off.

Gordon stared up the slope of the mountain.  The lift started with a lurch and the chairs moved, rocking back and forth, up into the clouds.

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