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   h a l e -b o p p    c a l l i n g    v i e n n a

--- R I C H A R D   C U M Y N

The day after Maddy's trip to Emergency, Vienna found me on the second floor in Bound Journals. The first thing she said was, "Why don't you have any elevators in this place?"

We have elevators. She knows that as well as I do. She just wanted to have something over me before she thanked me for driving Mario to the hospital. She sat on a chair, took off one of her shoes, and began rubbing her foot through her nylons.

"Never mind," she said. "I knew these were going to be murder the minute I bought them." The student beside her watched intently. The way Vienna was turned in her seat and had her legs crossed, the young man didn't have to use his imagination.

"So nice to see you," I said. But I was thinking, `Where were you and why did Mario have to spend three hours in agony trying to get to the phone?'

"I just wanted to say that if it hadn't been for you and Hub I don't know what I would have done. Poor, poor Maddy."

"You wouldn't have done anything, Vienna. You weren't home. Mario couldn't get a hold of you."

"That's right and I feel awful about it. The important thing is that Mario is going to be all right and they're going to let him come home in a day or two. Which raises a teensy smidge of a problem. See, I booked this whole next week at the spa -- I've told you about the one out in Osoyoos, it's marvelous -- a year ago, and I simply can't not go now. You understand, don't you, Lina?"

* * *

When they opened him up, the doctors found a split-tailed comet of spinal nerves wrapped around one of Mario's discs. They'd never seen anything like it. Imagine a huddle of them standing outside the operating room, looking at the x-ray and scratching their stubbly chins through green surgical masks. Picture a double-bundle of live, uninsulated wires, the ends frayed like shoe laces missing their plastic tips, squeezing that shock absorber between hollow knuckles of vertebrae.

I was reading the other day, in one of the new science journals we get over in Periodicals, that thousands of space snowballs hit the atmosphere every day. Some scientists think all the water on earth could have come from comets. The next logical step would be to suggest that all life on earth also came from comets. It's comforting to think that the necessary ingredients for life were frozen inside pieces of cosmic ice that entered the atmosphere of our tiny new planet, melted, mated with the clouds, and rained down amino acids on a raw, unconscious world.

When he came home from the hospital, I bought a copy of the magazine to read to Mario, because he had mentioned he wanted to see Hale-Bopp before it disappeared.

"That's one thing this back injury has forced me to do," he said. "It's made me stop and look around."

`You're still not really seeing, little brother,' I thought, looking around the little guest room downstairs where Vienna had put him.

"You used to have a star chart," I said. "You had to turn the dial to line it up with the right date. You had all the names and their positions memorized."

"I remember," he said. "We couldn't get a clear night very often back home. It's better out here. You should go outside with the binoculars."

I was trying to get a glimpse of the comet through the window above his bed. "Eastern horizon," I said, "summer sky. Say, mid-July. What would you see?"

"What time of night?"

"I don't know. Ten o'clock."

"Andromeda closest to the horizon. Alpheratz is the bright star. Pegasus to its right. Cygnus above, and Aquila with ... what is it now? ... with Altair, the double star, brightest."

"How can you remember that after all these years?" He grinned. "Maybe Comet Hale-Bopp and your back are connected," I said. "If it made those cult nuts go and kill themselves, maybe it's got some kind of weird power over all of us. Maybe it made the nerves in your back go haywire."

"And maybe you've had your nose in the tabloids for too long."

"Don't you think we -- as in I'm talking about all life -- could have come from somewhere else, Mad? Doesn't it make sense that in all of space we can't be the only ones?"

"There's only one like you, Lina. That I know."

He tried to shift from lying on his side to flat on his back when suddenly he was being squeezed in the grip of a giant unseen vice. Everything locked, his arms, his fists, his head three inches off the pillow, his eyes screwed shut. I stood up, but at first I just looked at him. I love him, he's my brother, but this life he's been handed, this body - - no one should have to make his way around inside that.

There wasn't much else I could do except get him his ice pack and his pills. The drugs did their work and he fell asleep. I was angry at the doctors for not making my brother's back strong, supple and free of pain. What does pain-free really mean? We're all in some kind of pain. The surgeons did all they could.

I went outside and stood on his front lawn. The comet was just above the top of a pine tree in the yard across the street. The air was so fresh and cold that it felt like I was breathing in part of the tail and exhaling it with each billowy breath.

I wasn't surprised that day when we got Maddy's distress call. At thirty-nine he has the body of a man twice his age, what with all the steroids and antibiotics he had to take when he was a child. He refuses to exercise, won't change his diet or stop smoking, insists on driving eight-hour round trips every few days just to keep tabs on his donut shops.

Hub and I got him to Emergency and, I don't know, I suppose you've got to be showing the insides of your body or turning purple in order to be seen inside of six hours nowadays. Even though Maddy couldn't walk, couldn't stand, couldn't sit -- lord knows we couldn't carry him, not somebody just this side of three hundred pounds -- nobody came out to help him. All we could do once we'd rolled him out the back of the Bronco was watch him crawl on hands and knees through the sliding doors. Hub kept saying, "Mario, wait for the gurney, man, someone will come out," but no one was coming and Mad is not the sit-and-wait-politely sort of fellow. His hair was still wet with bath water.

Normally he has his cell phone with him so that he can deal with business problems as they come up. Last month one of his suppliers recalled half a million liters of contaminated deep-fry oil while Maddy was slowed to a crawl in traffic. That kind of thing would have paralysed me, but he turned up the air-conditioning, punched in a few numbers, pulled down a couple of favours, and by the time he was doing a hundred again he had new cooking oil being delivered to all ten shops. Maddy's. You've probably stopped at one for coffee.

I don't know where his cell phone was the night we took him to the hospital. Vienna took it, no doubt. He had been taking a bath in that deep new marble tub she begged him to buy. He could have kept running the water until the hot ran out or until someone found him, but who knows how long that was going to be? By the time we got to him he was lying on his side like a wounded manatee, mottled blue and white, naked and wet on the floor at the top of the stairs, shivering and yelling with the pain. He doesn't remember much of that. The upstairs phone was sitting unplugged beside him, the connection broken off at the wall. I don't know how Hub maneuvered him down those stairs and out to the car.

When he was little, Mario used to get into bed with me whenever he was scared. I'd let him put his thumb in his mouth and his other hand on my breast, which soothed him. He'd fall asleep, leaving me wide awake listening to his wheezy breathing. Every couple of minutes he'd cough because he wasn't getting enough air, and if it got bad I'd go get his bronchial inhaler for him. He spent so much of his childhood in hospitals. If I could give it to him to live again, I'd make him strong, tall, fast, handsome, a wiseacre, and so dumb everybody would just die loving him.

But God decided to give him a defective body and a brain three sizes too big. You might as well just pickle a kid like that and put him on display in a carnival. Run an electric current through the brine solution and stand around waiting for the miracle to happen: Brain Boy Breathes Under Water. Whiz Kid Walks Again. Step right up, folks, see a certified Wonder of Natural Science.

Back in high school he was always coming home with prizes. One year he was one of the first to spot the comet Kahoutek with just a pair of binoculars. He used to take the number seventeen bus west as far as it would go out Fenton Drive towards the city limits, and then walk almost to the airport to get away from the lights. Kahoutek was a bust, as I recall. People were expecting something big -- bigger than Halley. I read that Mark Twain was born in a year that Halley's Comet was visible and died the year it boomeranged around again, seventy-six years later. People hang so much hope on these heavenly visitations. Maddy made observations for about a week and then predicted that this Kahoutek was not going to make much of a splash. I couldn't tell you how he knew this, but he wrote out all his calculations and took some pictures, had them enlarged and enhanced, and entered the project in the regional science fair. One of the judges asked him to suggest a possible application for his method of predicting the magnitude of approaching comets and meteors. Maddy said, "That's not my concern, sir. Knowledge is its own reward." Fifteen years old. He took second prize. They gave the top award to some kid who made a potato- powered egg-timer.

He was always doing that, telling people exactly what he thought, never sugaring over the truth as if it was one of his cinnamon buns. He never thought to spare people their feelings. On a full science scholarship -- tuition, books, lab fees, room and board -- and after getting his bachelor's degree in two and a half years, graduating at the top of his class, he began working towards a master's in physics, only to drop out after just one semester. The professors were all pinheads, he said, and the man who was going to be his thesis advisor knew less about quantum mechanics than Mario did. And so he turned his back on science. Sometimes I think science is taking its revenge on him.

But you won't find me feeling sorry for him. If he sold all his stores today, to a Tim Horton's, say, or a Dunkin Donuts, he'd walk away with a fortune, and it's taken all my willpower not to say to him, `Mad, give yourself a break, that highway is not getting any easier to drive, and you refuse to take the bus or the train. Give yourself some breathing time. Fresh air, long walks. You could take up golf, Hub'd teach you, I'm sure he would, and you could go curling with us in the winter. Bring Vienna along.'

I can't picture Vienna trying to keep her balance on the ice, though, or trying her hand at the broom. If she's not carrying a full shopping bag in each hand she falls right over on her buns of steel, and that's on dry pavement. That's why Maddy ought to sell out. He should take a hard look at his finances. Where's the cash flowing, he should ask himself, and where's the drain it's going down? He's blind as well as crippled.

Hub told me the other day, he said, "Lina, the man doesn't even have a regular accountant. He has this old retired guy from the church doing his books for him."

Vienna draws directly on the business's operating account. No household budget, no savings account to be seen. Hub says they should call the auditor themselves, get it over with, save themselves the worry and the wait.

All I'm saying is that Mad had better watch himself, rein in that woman of his, perhaps try to figure out what he sees in her. Which isn't fair, I know. Nobody has the right to criticize another person's marriage, but this is my little brother. If only you could have seen his face in the car on the way to the hospital. The surgeons got him all untangled finally, after hours with him on the slab, but even after it was over, he hardly looked human.

The sorting area at the Bremner Library is always full. Some days I spend a whole morning just making up carts for the second and third floors. Lately it's been exam time and the old exams -- their bindings are falling off they're handled so much -- have to be constantly re-shelved. It's the kind of job where you can't worry too much about things being out of place. I can be re-shelving ARCH to CHEM, 1994, and someone will take it right out of my hand and over to the photocopier without even a by-your-leave. I'd love to get Hub to take some of these students inside the slammer with him for a day. Just to open their eyes. Just to see the other side of things, show them how lucky they are with their perfect bodies and sparkling teeth and all the money in the world behind them. Have you seen the cars they drive?

Even so, I wish Hub wasn't working there. I was driving home from the store the other day. Petey was in the back seat with Trevor from the hockey team. They'd just got new in- line skates, and of course they had to put them on in the car, couldn't wait until we got home. Mind you, it kept them occupied for a while. We were driving by Disneyland, which is what Hub calls the prison, and had to stop for a road block. At least ten police cruisers were parked on both sides, and cops with big flashlights were pulling cars over. I counted four fire trucks parked in front of the entrance and then more cruisers, one at each corner of the wall under the towers. The TV news was there, an ambulance, people milling all over the grass between the highway and the front gate. All I could think was, Where's Hub? Is he inside or out? Is it a hostage-taking? What if he's one of the hostages?

Petey and Trev had their noses pressed to the side window. Petey was admiring the emergency vehicles and the SWAT team setting up in the back of a big yellow rental. "That's where my dad works," he said. It hadn't dawned on either of them that Hub might be in trouble. I thought about pulling the car out of the lineup and over to the side of the road, parking, maybe getting out, crossing the big ditch and walking up to somebody who could tell me what was going on. All I had to say was that I was the wife of one of the hostages and they'd hand me a phone. Wasn't that the way it worked? In my mind Hub was already dead and I was thinking, How am I supposed to get by without him? Why did he have to get a job installing alarm systems for Corrections?

Because that's what his training is and it's good, steady, well-paying work. Still, at a time like that, knowing nothing about what was happening inside, with the boys beginning to act up, the other two still at the babysitter's waiting to be picked up, I couldn't take it. I started to cry. I was so scared that I tapped the accelerator and bumped the car ahead of me. The driver didn't get out or even turn around. He must have been just as jumpy as I was.

"Mom, why don't we just go?"

"Why is he in there?" I said. "God, please, take somebody else, not Hub. Do this one thing for us. Do an exchange and I'll never...I'll never..."

"Never what, Mom?"

"Never mind."

It turned out to be a minor disturbance. A group of inmates set some chairs on fire, and three of them went missing for a while. The guards closed one section of the prison for a few hours. Hub says the overcrowding is so bad it's a wonder riots don't break out more often. These little smashing parties, as he calls them, are like electrical fuses blowing. Anyway, he was working in a different block and got outside as soon as the trouble started. He told us everything he knew when he got home, which wasn't very long after we did, once we'd crawled up to the road block and submitted to a search. Hub looked at me and asked why I looked so awful. I wasn't worried, was I? He almost got something thrown at his head.

* * *

Mario was sleeping deeply when I came back inside. I went into the den and called directory assistance and got the number for Vienna's spa. I got connected to the front desk. The woman who answered said that she couldn't wake any guest at this time of night. I told her that this was an emergency. Ms Dietrich's husband had been in a terrible, life-threatening accident. He was in critical condition.

A few minutes later I heard Vienna's groggy, "Hello? Lina? What's going on?"

"Nothing. I think you should come home now."

"What's this about an accident? Is Mario all right?"

"No, Mario's not all right. He's in pain. Or hadn't you noticed?"

"You can't yank a person out of bed in the middle of the night."

"Just get your size-five ass back home. Your husband needs you."

I didn't expect her to come, and she didn't. Thinking about waking her up, though, hooking that catch of surprise and annoyance in her voice, made the rest of the night almost bearable.

But there was no going to sleep. I took a kitchen chair onto the front step. All night I sat keeping my eye on that trick of light and dust in the night sky, the miraculous trumpet first there, then hidden in cloud, then peekaboo back again. All the ingredients, the seeds of life, were up there. Who knows what else?

"I'm ready," I whispered, "I'm ready now," and felt the heaviness begin to lift from my heart.

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