The Stars, My Friends
If I move my head just a crick, just a tiny bit, I can see the night sky and that single star that always seems to find its way to me. I’m not enough of a taxonomist to bother finding out its name or when it’s brightest, but I sure do welcome its presence whenever it decides to show up. Guiding star? Not hardly: more like, my only friend.
But that there are more stars up there, and after tonight, I’ll be able to see them. Once I remove the obstacle to seeing them, that is.
It wasn’t that I’m tied down onto a wooden cot or something. Far from it: my cell is a small trailer at Slot #28, Forest Way Lane, right in the middle of a trailer park at the far outskirts of Pahrump, Nevada. Pahrump’s a place that people pass through on their way to or from the “real” desert, which to most people means plump cacti raising their arms up to the sky and plenty of scary, nasty snakes. (Again, no taxonomist, so no snake species names). When tourists pass through Pahrump, they ask, “Wow, who lives here? Talk about the end of nowhere!”, and go back to texting or, more likely, cursing because they can’t get a signal.
I have to stay inside the trailer except when the guards tell me otherwise, and they tell me at random times, planning’s not easy. Thus, my trailer is pretty much my world right now. Actually, it has everything I need: a kitchen, little table, a VCR (no TV though), and, of course, a bathroom. Most important, it has that skylight through which I can see that black, black desert sky and (almost) everything it contains. The skylight brings me my nighttime entertainment. Almost perfect as it is, it can still be improved upon. And it will be, tonight.
I used to be a biologist, back in the day. I did research in labs at fancy universities and taught science at great schools. Lots of fun, but it taught me that the name is not the thing and that not much was gained by knowing the classification and habits of every living thing in the world. Of nonliving things, like stars, even less. Most of the friends I had from back then got laid off or just quit science after their tenure decisions went the wrong way and they had to go back to second-jobbing. Lots of them ended up teaching high school, where they got to feel smart and, often, appreciated to boot.
Me, I did something different when the ivy from those hallowed academic walls started to strangle me. I turned to what some would call a “life of crime.” It wasn’t big crimes: mostly, just petty theft from people who could afford to lose what I “found” on their dressers, in their closets, or behind their locked cabinet doors. I got trained by someone who had been my boss in the next-but-last lab I worked in, a fellow called Old Jim after he stopped answering to “Dr. Morristen.” He and I hadn’t always seen eye to eye when it came to investigating brain cells (my specialty), but there had been no finer teacher of the illegal trades than Jim. I miss him still.
We started out with indirect admissions of our interest in endeavors that some might call “illegal.” Over the morning paper before lab meetings, he’d read an article about, say, someone getting caught for shoplifting. He’d remark, “Poor guy!”, then look up at me for a reaction. For whatever reason, maybe his smiling, open face, I’d decided to not BS Old Jim about anything, including science (which already had its share of highly-trained BS-ers). So, I’d answer with something sympathetic but neutral, like “Yeah, he should have run out of there faster”, or some such. Jim would smile and turn back to his paper. But the lines of communication were being laid.
After a year or so of this, with our grant money running out and our colleagues mostly laid off, we started talking more openly. The turning point came at a retreat high in the Cascade Mountains in Montana. We’d both blown off the Keynote Address by Famous Scientist Number 155 and ended up nursing our drinks on a bench at the huge feet of the hotel’s signature Big Brown Stuffed Bear. (Every place in the mountains has a bear like this, but they’re still massive, awe-inspiring things that you never get used to). Jim seemed nervous and jiggly, so I asked him, “Hey, how are you tonight? Everything OK?” I’d heard that his marriage was on its last legs and that he might be living alone by now.
This hotel’s Big Brown Stuffed Bear lived outside, and we could see the stars from our bench. There were so many that you couldn’t tell whether it was stars in the sky, or little pieces of sky patched in between the stars. Jim leaned back against the bear’s claws and turned to me. He said, “No. It’s not. Wanna know why?” I nodded and he went on to tell me about his difficult childhood, his dashed hopes for a career in science, his unhappy marriage, and a lot of other things that don’t relate to petty larceny or stars or trailers in the desert. I was far from a passive listener: the guy’s story moved me, and I added a lot of my own personal details. What I mean is, we became friends.
It wasn’t long after that, that friendship turned to interdependence in a way that, maybe, it only can when the other person is the only thing between you and jail. (Or, a trailer in Pahrump). Jim had a history of arrests as a juvenile for unauthorized entry and, even, breaking and entering, all of which were expunged from his record when he turned 18. That’s when he got onto the straight and narrow and worked his way up to prominent research scientist. But those early skills, and interests, never left him. For me, stealing things was mostly brand new, but I was eager to learn.
We started my training in the small towns of California and Nevada, where the police were spread thin and deviant lifestyles were as common as June beetles. The friendly nature of people in those parts helped, too: you could meet someone in the early afternoon and get invited to their house that night for dinner. True, a lot of those folks didn’t have much worth stealing, but it was good practice and you didn’t feel like you were harming anyone, either: after all, how much could a wrought-iron cast of a mustang head really be worth? Sometimes we’d go together, sometimes alone, to these little soirées. We almost always came back the richer for the experience.
After a while, we saw the writing on the lab wall and decided to exit our careers. We had chalked up a lot of publications and a pretty good amount of science fun, but it was time to go. We kept our stash of appropriated items in an old cabin not far from the Pahrump Walmart, and we’d visit there at regular intervals to relive the glory days of how we got them. It might seem silly for a grown man to get a kick out of holding up a vase of desert glass and laughing over how quickly he’d been able to tuck it into his britches while his hostess poured the coffee—but I ask you, is it any sillier than that same grown man yucking it up because he got the broom closet down the hall to store his cell samples in while his arch-rival in the Biology Department got only a small new cold room? I think not.
We broadened out to bigger towns. We had a life, plans, even a schedule of sorts, and we were a lot happier than we’d been in academia. No one got hurt, no one lost anything particularly valuable (and then there’s insurance), and we had tangible proof that we were good at something.
Then it all fell apart when one Widow Westmore caught onto us and laid a trap. She’d seemed like anyone else we met in those days, friendly while letting you have your own space, but apparently, she saw herself as one of the strong arms of the law. The details are boring, but suffice it to say that she had our hideaway staked out and kept notes on our comings and goings. The police used their powers as they’re entitled to do, and we were arrested one night just as we walked in after a particularly productive evening. The legal process ground along, and Old Jim and I parted ways two years ago. I got sent to this trailer for three years, assuming good behavior. Which I have.
Actually, it’s not so bad except for the skylight.
And that great big tree that grows across it. The big tree that hides all the stars except that one, lone, single friend of mine.
Remember how I said my address is Forest Way Lane? You wouldn’t think there’d be a forest in the desert, but for whatever reason, someone decided to plant one about a hundred years ago. They cleared away a big patch of sand, dust, and rocks, trucked in millions of gallons of water, and rolled out streets with names like “Forest Way” and “Aspen Lane.” I don’t know what kind of trees these are (taxonomy again), but they are tall and thick and have lots of branches. BIG branches that give lots of shade and make the place look like you’re somewhere else than in jail, somewhere romantic, even. The branches wave in the desert breeze and cast pretty shadows on my trailer’s walls.
But those same big branches hang over my skylight, my only nighttime entertainment. Those’re what have to go, tonight.
I’ve been planning for this for a long time. Started by telling the guards that I’m a plant expert and could I please help out with weeding, raking, and tree trimming? You know, to keep me calm, keep up my skills and maybe improve my chances for employment when I get out? At first, they pooh-poohed the idea, but after a few months, they said, “OK, Number 28, here’s some gloves and a little hoe. Get going!” Despite little experience with actual, living plants, I busted my butt to look like I knew what I was doing: I weeded, raked, put trash into baskets, and, when they started to trust me, I asked for permission to trim off some of the lower branches that might hit cars or even people. It wasn’t long before I was able to hide a small chainsaw in a bush near the tree that ruins my view of the night sky.
The hardest thing was getting the guards to accept my climbing up into the tree, which I had to do to loosen up the branches. I started low: just a few feet into the tree to hack off some obviously dead wood that needed to go. I let it pile up over time so they’d be reminded that I’d been doing this work for a long time. No problem, no threat, just a tree fanatic, heard the guy used to be a scientist or something. Yeah, right.
It took me almost two months to get the main branch, the one that hangs over my skylight, loose enough. Each time I went up into the tree for some obvious reason, I made a few more cuts in that branch, like a little bear nibbling at a honey log. Cut, cut, weaken, weaken, I’d chant to myself. Finally, yesterday, I made the last cut. That branch is just hanging on by a thread.
Of course, I don’t want it to come down on my trailer, or anyone else’s, for that matter. The guys on my block are mostly good sorts, and I don’t want their lives to get any harder than they already are: no one needs broken bones or a bashed-in face as their souvenir of jail time. So, I had to calculate the cuts in just the right way to make the “chips NOT fall where they may”, but where I wanted them to.
But the biggest problem was, how to get the tree to fall? That’s always the hardest thing in logging, that final push. You don’t want it to fall on, say, you. Suffice it to say that it’s easier when you’re just concerned with one branch—even a big one—and when you’ve had a career that required calculating lots of things with numbers. Of course, some additional tools were needed, but I managed to snag those and employ them toward my purpose.
But how to give that final push? Rely on Mother Nature, I’ve always said. The weather. Without a strong, wild desert storm, I wouldn’t have a prayer for getting that branch down. I bugged the guards every day for the weather report, and they thought it was because of my love of plants. (I sort of encouraged that view). But of course, it was for one reason only: to know when would we get our next Santa Ana.
And it’s tonight. And it’s right now. I’m going outside to move some tools around (which they let me do, as long as it’s not for too long a time) and check that the branch is hanging on by just the thread I left it on.
Talk to you later.
Later is now. I’m on my bed, with my eyes on that single star, my only friend. Except now…when I look up, I see that I’ve got more friends than I can count. More friends than anyone can count. So many friends, it almost seems like I maybe should learn their names. So many, many friends.
Such a clear view. Such a beautiful night sky. And such a big job for tomorrow, to saw up that huge branch that fell to earth for no apparent reason.
For now, I’ll just lie here and enjoy my nighttime entertainment. Could there be anything more wonderful than this?