Featured in Colorado Review
Liminal ScorpionsFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Summer 2012
I recently found a scorpion on my father’s desk, which I have since stolen. Not a live creature, but a specimen, long pickled in formaldehyde. The handwritten label inside the jar reads: Paruroctonus silvestrii: Las Estacas, Mexico—1971. The scorpion floats in suspended animation, trapped in the jar I now balance on the flat of my palm, its body preserved for display. Appearing neither dead nor alive, it hovers near the bottom, leaving an almost imperceptible gap between its abdomen and the glass that rests on my hand.
I discovered it a few days after my father telephoned from Mexico to say he had decided to stay there until he dies. “I’m not long for this world,” he said. “I need you to ship me some things.” I reached for the notepad next to my computer and took down his list, an itemized request that would trigger my weeklong scavenger hunt inside his unoccupied central California home, my discovery of this particular scorpion specimen bottled on the shelf above his desk, and my subsequent thievery. Although my father built a career, a life, around his research on the evolution of arachnids—spiders, mites, and scorpions—he made no mention of his specimen collection the day he rattled his list into the receiver.
“The Great Lectures DVD collection and the most recent catalogue from the Teaching Company,” he said. His voice cracked with urgency. “My Encyclopedia Britannica set, including the annual almanacs. Posters of The Blue Boy and Pinkie—the reproductions I got last year at the Huntington Museum, not the photocopies in my bedroom, but the original posters—you’ll have to remove them from the frames.”
With the phone clamped between my shoulder and jaw, I repeated the list back to him.
He added a few more items, then proceeded to describe in detail where each object lay inside his house.
“I know where it all is,” I said several times. And “Yes, of course I know that, too.” His house stands just five doors down from mine, so I know the layout of his home quite well. But he didn’t stop with the directions no matter how many “I-knows” I uttered, because once he gets going on a train of thought it’s impossible for him to stop. Impossible.
After a while I doodled on the notepad, saying “uh-huh” every few seconds.
My father had gone to Mexico at my urging. A few months ago my brother and I bought him a one-way ticket with the vague promise of a return flight at his convenience. We hoped that without a specific return date in mind, he might be more inclined to stay longer than three weeks—perhaps forever. This isn’t quite as harsh as it seems. For decades he’d dreamed of moving there permanently, surrounded by the language and landscape he loves, the deserts and beaches and mountains where he’d gathered arachnid specimens for half a century. Best of all, he would be near relatives who could look after him. Relatives other than me. Far away.
Among the list of things he requested were his Great Books of the Western World, a hardbound series originally published in 1952, fifty-four volumes covering classic literature, including works of fiction, history, natural science, philosophy, mathematics, and religion. I didn’t tell him that the information contained in these books is readily available on the Internet, or that it would be cheaper to mail-order new books online and have them sent directly to his new apartment in Mexico rather than have me ship the old books. But he doesn’t use computers. Anyway, once he sets his mind to something, he automatically disregards all other options.
“On the bookcase next to my bed,” he said, as always, hyper-enunciating.
“Yes, I know.”
“I must have them with me. They are monumental works by and about great authors. The most influential thinkers of our time.”
I know, I know, I fucking know. But I did not say this either, because I’ve long understood that once he gets started he cannot stop. Cannot.
“Be sure to include the supplemental texts on Aristotle. Aristotle lived from 384 BC until 322 BC. He was a student of Plato and he taught Alexander the Great.”
My father’s speech patterns—his vocabulary and syntax—while noticeably formal in comparison to the average person’s, are characteristic of him. Classic Asperger’s from what I understand, albeit undiagnosed. His mannerisms balance on the edge of the autism spectrum. Strained social interaction, repetitive patterns of behavior, obsessive focus on specific interests—these traits manifest themselves as tiny droplets of personality toxins, not fatal, but unpleasant.
I doodled through his monologue on Plato and the dates of Chaucer and Sir Francis Bacon.
Also on his list: five pairs of leather shoes, four new suits, a case of unopened vitamin supplements, odor-free garlic tablets, a carton of bottles labeled All Natural Male Enhancement, a small leather-bound address book, back issues of Scientific American, and several file folders of correspondence—each labeled by name, including one marked “Stephen Jay Gould.”
“I’ll be so grateful to you for sending me these things, Carole.”
“I’m on the line between life and death. These things will keep me alive longer, do you understand?”
I suppose I said the things one is expected to say to a father. I suppose I said, Don’t be silly. You’re not dying anytime soon, or Stop talking such nonsense, or But I thought you’d live to be one hundred and five—remember your plan? You’re only eighty-two, so you have twenty-three years to go. Or maybe I didn’t say those things but thought them instead. Our conversations are so cyclical, our topics recurring so frequently—including his ever-immediately impending death, which he’s been predicting for some forty years now—that I often lose track of what I’ve specifically said on which day.
I cradled the phone against my lower jaw and bulleted each item with little curly-cues. In that moment I wasn’t sure if I was a good daughter or a bad one; I said the things a daughter should say, carried out actions expected of me, took dictation, wrote the list; but part of me considered throwing the list away, folding it in half and letting it go in the breeze outside. While my father prepared for his final respite by gathering earthly items of comfort and interest, things to make his remaining life enjoyable, I wasn’t sure I wanted to deliver. Perhaps if I withheld his treasures he would postpone his passage from this world—stave off death—in which case my inclination to tear up the list was morally just. On the other hand, my withholding would cause him some degree of discomfort. I could let him squirm down there in Mexico—waiting and waiting for his things that would never arrive—pinch him with passive-aggressive retaliation for his past transgressions, a fuzzy litany I haven’t fully articulated even to myself. Good daughter or bad? Perhaps I was both in that moment, a morally liminal creature with one foot on each side.
“Are you getting all this down?” he asked.
Hoards of specimen jars once filled both my father’s offices, one office at the university where he taught in Southern California and a second study at home. Years after my parents split, he lived for a while in a double-wide mobile home in Chino where the hollow floor shook if you stepped too heavily, sending vibrations up the walls and rattling rows of specimen jars on their plywood shelves. When I was a teenager visiting during the summer, I once slammed the door on purpose just to watch my friend Lana’s reaction as the scorpions fluttered momentarily awake, their legs and pincers gently rising in rippling isopropyl tides sloshing rim to rim. I laughed when her shoulders twitched with a get-them-off-me reflex. Clenching her teeth, she involuntarily bent forward to slap her bare shins, as if the reptilian, survival part of her brain were unable to differentiate between real or imagined threats. While I now know that her reactive behavior is a result of our genetic predisposition to fear noxious animals, in that moment I reveled in her uncertainty as hypothetical scenarios played out in her head, as her hypothalamus and sensory cortex conversed, assessing the repercussion of her every decision should these scorpions have been alive and loose.
Suppose you were bitten by a scorpion. Let’s say the Death Stalker, Apistobuthus pterygocercus. The initial sting feels like several bee stings at once. You cry out in pain, then kick your foot into the air to jolt the scorpion from your ankle. Your heart soon races, banging furiously against your sternum. Has the scorpion’s venom caused your heart to pound, or is this merely a psychological reaction? You linger for a few minutes, suspended in inaction, indecision—should you seek medical attention or just let the pain in your ankle subside? Let’s say you wait it out. No need for drama. Scorpion stings are overrated, overplayed—the stories of agonizing deaths are neither false nor true, you say. Urban legends grown to monstrosities, you reason. So you apply an ice pack to ease the pain on your ankle, the red circle radiating from the puncture. Your heart pounds harder. Blood thrums against your eardrums. You feel hot. You start to sweat. You close your eyes, lean back on the couch, and elevate your ankle with a pile of throw pillows. As neurotoxins surge through your brain, they clamp onto sodium channels, alternately blocking and activating signals to your nervous system. The first convulsions take you by surprise—your arms tremble, your feet tingle, your lower abdomen contracts several times, like a shiver but stronger. You’re neither moving your body nor are you still; you quake on the threshold of voluntary physical action and involuntary reaction. It’s time to seek help, so you look at the phone a few feet away; but within this sliver of time, the time you took to contemplate your situation, paralysis has crept in. Your eyelids slam back in their utmost open position, your eyeballs halt, now trapped in a frozen gaze, and your limbs, now trembling, flop up and down with the rhythm of your heaving torso as it folds and unfolds like a piece of paper trapped in the wind. Finally, your blood pressure drops and muscles release. Your limbs are loose again. The last thing you see is the telephone nestled uselessly in its cradle, and as fluids seep into your lungs and pain-killing endorphins flood your brain, you welcome the coma, the sleep, the flood of deep relaxation that feels so, so good.
The day after my father’s phone call I began packing his books. I opened all the blinds and doors to allow as much light in the house as possible. February’s winter chill wafted in from the front and back yards, and although I intended to work quickly to stave off the cold, I found myself lingering, occasionally pausing to open certain books. At first my curiosity was random: pull a book, crack it open, notice a word or two, slide it into the open banker’s box on the floor. I lifted Arnold van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, originally published in 1908, reprinted in 1960. The pages smelled of dust, of moisture. I read. Pondered. Reached for the dictionary to look something up, then the encyclopedia, then back to Rites of Passage, then reached for something else, losing myself in a linked meandering of then-and-then, piling open books on the carpet around me rather than filling the cardboard box.
My digressive thread—Liminality: The condition of being on a threshold or at the beginning of a process. To be in “limbo,” says the resurrected anthropologist Gennep, is to inhabit an intermediate, ambivalent zone. In liminal phase an individual experiences a blurring of social environment and reality, occupies the in-between stage. The term derives from the Latin limen, which means boundary, transitional mark, passage between two different places. Liminal space represents a threshold of a physiological or psychological response, the place where you teeter between action and inaction, the moment you consider calling for help; the instant your eyes dart between the phone and the red spot spreading from your ankle; the window of time between your last inhalation and your first convulsion—and there it is, the sliver of time that precedes paralysis, a sliver so fine, so sharp, it defies balance. You must step off, onto one side or the other. Go or stay; float or sink; here or there. Which way will you lean?
And what can I say to ease your fear, dear father, alleviate your angst: one hundred and five, remember the plan? Or maybe I should give you a push instead, tell you to count backward from eighty-two and let your abdomen sink, rest on the smooth glass bottom. When the lid turns to seal the portal, the flood will feel so, so good. Liminality: The psychological point beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced.
By noon, the liminal hour between morning’s lingering chill and afternoon’s oncoming warmth, the neighborhood outside my father’s silent front door chirped with sounds of life. I looked up from whichever book I held and walked to the window. Two young mothers from around the block pushed strollers side by side in the street as a preschooler rode his bicycle alongside them on the sidewalk, his rear tire wobbling safely between training wheels. I imagine now that if that little boy were to fall, if the training wheels failed to keep him upright, he would not hesitate to cry out for help, and his mother would rush to his aid, either tilting the bike upright with an outstretched arm to get him back on track, or scooping him up off the ground should he topple and fall to the concrete.
I remember the first time I rode a two-wheeler, a secondhand blue and white Schwinn my parents had picked up at Leroy’s Thrift Store in Pomona the winter of my first-grade year. I don’t recall my father being present for that particular rite of passage, the day I learned to ride a bike. He wasn’t the type to ride bikes, play ball, or attend Open House at my elementary school, but preferred instead to hole up in his study alone, or engage a few of his students in deep intellectual debate while smoking pot under the fig tree in our backyard. Lana was there the day of my inaugural lesson, though, along with a gaggle of neighborhood kids. One of the tall boys from the apartments across the street instructed me before I got on the bike while the other kids huddled around. We stood at the interior end of my parents’ driveway next to the house, a long concrete corridor shaded by thick mulberry trees and the slatted-wood carport covering, a structure my father had built the preceding fall. The tall boy braced the bike upright as I climbed into place and rested my feet on the pedals. The other kids shouted instructions at me as I sat on the wide leather seat, still unmoving, still braced, aimed toward sunny Ninth Street far ahead at the other end of the dark driveway.
“Ready?” the tall boy asked.
I didn’t answer right away. I paused. A moment of indecision.
The kids’ voices swirled past my ears, making little sense to me at that moment—advice on which way to lean, how to grip the handlebars, how pressing backward on the pedals would engage the coaster brake. One voice I did hear, though: “We’ll catch you if you fall,” someone said.
“All set?” the boy asked again.
On the count of three, the boy gave me a push. At first I teetered, overcorrecting the handlebars several times, wrenching them side-to-side. But as I gained forward momentum, I finally straightened out the front wheel. I found the sweet spot, the arrow-like glide. Balance. Exactly in between left and right. Lean. Let up. Lean. My friends ran alongside as I rolled toward the light, still solely propelled by the force of the tall boy’s initial push, through the darkened corridor toward the bright open space where the sidewalk divided our place from everyplace else, a concrete boundary separating Insulated-In-Here from Risk-Laden-Out-There.
I think it was Lana who finally screamed for me to pedal.
I pumped my right foot down, then my left. The bike burst forward, powered past the voices and scampering feet, and sailed into the open, wide street hot with asphalt and sunlight and possibility.
My father’s absence that afternoon is representative of so many absences, a single line-item in my catalogue of his inattentive moments and self-sequestered years. Even when he was around, he wasn’t really around. The day of my birth, for example (which, coincidentally, fell on his thirty-sixth birthday), marked the beginning of our shared lives. He tells the story of racing my mother to the hospital before dawn the morning of his birthday, the second of June, and when my mother started to crown right there in the elevator, the nurses ushered her directly into the delivery room. He paced the waiting room with bated breath, he says, his mind wild with the possibilities ahead, good and bad. On one hand he was eager for the baby, the skin and bone manifestation of his DNA, his contribution to humankind’s evolution. On the other hand he wrestled with worry and guilt about how the baby might turn out. When they had first learned my mother was pregnant with me, my father wasn’t at all happy.
Something had to be done. “There are doctors that handle this,” he’d said. On the day of her scheduled pregnancy-termination procedure, my mother had returned home that afternoon without having gone to the clinic. She lied to my father, though, claiming that while she’d received a hypertonic saline injection (which, in fact, she had not), for some reason the six-week embryo didn’t abort. “I guess we’re stuck,” she told him. Now, seven-and-a-half months later, he paced the delivery waiting room and wondered how that super-salt shot might have mangled the gestating fetus. Would this baby be physically deformed or mentally affected? A hell of a price to pay, he thought.
Finally the doctor emerged from the delivery room, smiley-faced, at twenty-two minutes past six to announce the news: “It’s a girl,” he said. “Congratulations, Bruce.”
At my mother’s bedside my father carefully balanced my head in the fleshy crook of his folded arm, and when he had counted all ten fingers and all ten toes for the third time, his eyes watered and he told my mother how perfect we both were, she and I.
My father usually omits from his recounting that, within days of their return to the house, my baby noises were too much of a distraction for him inside the house where he studied, so he erected a tent for my mother in the backyard, the large army-green canvas shelter they used on my father’s scorpion-gathering expeditions in the Mexican desert. I know this may be hard to believe, but I shit you not, dear reader. There on the dry Bermuda grass, with a lawn chair inched to the edge of a Woolworth’s plastic wading pool, behind her a pair of camping cots and a floor fan powered by an extension cord stretching from the house to the tent, she tended me during the day, the nineteen-year-old mother and her red-faced newborn, cooing, crying, nursing, and sleeping through the summer heat.
In contrast to the underlying dynamics between my parents that must have been quite complex, the photos from that time, at least as I remember them, paint a deceptively simple picture. I’ve seen only a few snapshots from those days, and it’s been so many years since I’ve seen them that the image in my mind is a bit fuzzy. All appears relatively serene through the camera lens—a hippie-ish scene with my mother smiling from behind the frames of her cat-eye glasses; my father bare-chested and barefoot in dress slacks cut off above the knee. I imagine them taking turns holding their new infant in the yard, snapping a camera loaded with a fresh roll of Kodak slide film and sipping sun tea with fresh lemon wedges picked from the side yard. He probably took several little breaks like this over the course of the day, walking back and forth from the living room to the yard. Then in the evening, when the sun sank beneath the neighborhood’s drooping power lines, my mother joined my father in the house for spaghetti and sliced cantaloupe. My mother slept with me inside the house at night and returned to the backyard campsite each morning.
No, he wasn’t exactly cruel, at least not intentionally. He just wasn’t all that interested in fatherhood. Many people don’t really want to be parents; rather, parenthood sort of happens to them. We all deal with it in our unique ways. Some of us learn to balance personal need with responsibility and end up enjoying it. Others meet their responsibilities and mask their disdain, sometimes successfully, other times not. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the Asperger’s (which is the label I’ve assigned to him, anyway), but my father rarely camouflages his intentions. If he doesn’t want children he simply says so, then tells his pregnant wife to make an appointment at the appropriate clinic. If the crying baby bothers his reading, again he simply says so, then rummages through the garage until he finds the tent poles. Does this prove him one or the other, good father or bad? One incident, taken in isolation—no, I don’t think so. But when does the cumulative effect enter the algorithm? On one side of the equation, he missed pretty much all my rites of passage growing up. Never did he attend (or even know about, in most cases) a single parent conference, open house, graduation, swim meet, driving lesson, birthday party, marching parade, or music recital.
On the other side of the equation, I remember the morning he rushed to my rescue during the San Fernando earthquake of 1971—which rumbled from its epicenter fifty miles northwest of Pomona—just weeks after I’d learned to ride my bike, the same year he would later capture the scorpion I have recently stolen. Asleep in the top bunk of my bedroom, I was awakened by the clank-clank-clank of the head- and footboards rattling erratically against the wall. At first I sank my head deeper into the pillow and drifted back to sleep for maybe a second or two, incorporating the side-to-side rocking motion of the bunk bed into the dream I’d been having, until the noise in my dream thumped louder, then took on weight, cannoning past the pit of my stomach. My eyes flew open with instantaneous focus. The whole bunk bed teetered away from the wall. The force threw me against the outer guardrail, which stopped me from rolling off the edge. Then abruptly the bed swung back the other way again, ramming against the wall so hard it popped the guardrail up and out of its shallow niche, hurling it across the room like a giant scorpion tail in full attack. The top bunk arched away from the wall again, farther out this time. I sat straight up, turned away from the wall and leaned back, against the bed’s outward momentum. If the bed had been the front tire of a wobbly bike, my body was the handlebar: Lean. Let up. Lean. Back and forth the bunk frame shuddered while tiny bits of plaster rained from the ceiling. Just as the window next to my headboard pinged, then cracked, my father burst through the door in his underwear. He pushed the bed up against the wall with all his weight. He wedged himself at an angle, a human plank, with arms outstretched, palms pushing upward against my mattress, his bare toes curled into the rug for traction.
“I gotcha,” he said.
We rode out the earthquake like that, him leaning into the bunk frame, me leaning backward, away from him and into the wall. I had no idea at the time, and wouldn’t fully understand until years later, that during those moments the world outside our house crumbled. I didn’t know what Richter 6.6 meant or that sixty-five people would die that day. While twelve bridges fell onto highway lanes, two hospitals collapsed, an entire medical center heaved off its foundation, and the lower section of the Van Norman Dam crumbled—my father and I found the sweet spot, the upright balance, if only for a few slow-motion seconds. We managed to leverage our bodies against the shifting continent below us. While the earth’s crust transitioned—buckled and split and sank—my father and I inhabited a fleeting moment of limbo. We countered the vibrations pulsing through the wooden floor on its raised, hollow foundation.
While my shoulder blades thumped against the wall, I watched over my father’s bare shoulder as the crack in the window grew longer and more complex, ascending at a slight diagonal and splintering off like a windblown bush, or a tree permanently etched on the horizon.
Forty years later, I looked through the screened window of my father’s vacant home, some three hundred miles north of my childhood Pomona house, going through his things. Outside, the little boy continued riding his bike down the sidewalk, his plastic training wheels pinging with grit and gravel fragments. He pumped the pedals hard several times, then turned to look at his mother as he glided past her. She didn’t seem to notice his daring feat because she was deep in conversation with her friend, so he hooted, “Look at me!”
She turned and raised her fist in way-to-go encouragement.
I moved to my father’s desk in the office, a converted room at the back of the house. There I found seven old specimen jars with spiders, mites, crabs, and scorpions. One jar had long ago shattered in place; the spider, no longer preserved in liquid, lay dried and crumbled amid shards of glass. It occurred to me then, not for the first time, how little I understand of my father, yet how quickly time narrows the boundaries of our shared earthly existence: soon he’ll be gone. It’s not the chronology of his life that evades me. I know much of what he did and when, despite the fact he was intermittently absent from my life until he moved to my town, my neighborhood, a few years ago. Although I’ve read much about the high-functioning edge of the autism spectrum—the lack of empathy, intense preoccupation with a particular subject, one-sided verbosity, impaired emotional reciprocity—part of me still can’t understand why his work was so important to him, why his intellectual life took precedence over our family. Wait. I take that back. Truth be told, I actually do understand why he is the way he is. What I wonder is why I ended up with such a parent.
Over Thanksgiving dinner in my living room last November, he said again—in the exact same words, with the same intonation and cadence as the hundred times before—how lucky we are to exist at all. How fortunate we humans are to be alive, let alone sentient. While the rest of us at the table talked about mundane things—about road construction blocking the downtown freeway exit and which alternative route might be best over the next few weeks—he interrupted with his own train of thought.
“The probability of the existence of your individual, unique genome is about one over a googolplex,” he blurted to no one in particular, but looked at my mother-in-law.
“Oh,” she said, not knowing how else to respond.
“Do you know what a googolplex is?” he said to everyone, but looked at me.
“No,” I said on cue.
“Do you want to know?”
“Sure.” Still on cue.
“It can be represented in a mathematical equation.”
The table thus quieted, he lifted a pen and three-by-five-inch notepad from his breast pocket. He wrote: 10(10)(100). “Or it can be written out as a number. A googolplex is the second largest number with a name. It’s a one, followed by a googol of zeros.”
“Do you know how much a googol is?” he finally asked.
My cue again. “How much?”
“A googol is a one followed by a hundred zeros.”
My mother-in-law said nothing, just nodded politely and pushed the mashed potatoes with her fork.
“You had a one-in-a-googolplex chance of being here today,” he said.
Very long pause. We all teetered on the threshold of awkward silence. I wondered if I should let the moment settle, or if I should say something to alleviate the social pain I imagined my guests felt. Let it die, or rescue it?
And then, before I could decide what to say, he mended the moment himself. “Carole, would you please be kind enough to pass the salt?”
The likelihood of our existence, of everything around us, in fact—all life on earth—has been the subject of much scholarly discourse. In his book Wonderful Life, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould describes bio-evolution as a copiously branching bush that originated by an improbable accumulation of accidental contingencies. Gould posits that if the evolutionary tape were played again, there is no way to predict what would happen—and no reason to expect that humans would have existed at all. He later explains in an interview with Time magazine, “It is like Back to the Future. In the movie Doc Brown goes to a blackboard and draws a chart. The top line is history as it actually occurred. But if you make this teeny little change, which is Biff Tannen getting that sports almanac, then history veers off. It isn’t that it is random that it happened the second way . . . It’s just that what actually happened is one of a billion possible alternatives, and you’d never get it to run exactly the same way again.”
There in my father’s office, next to the crumbled spider and shards of broken glass on his desk, the tail of the Paruroctonus silvestrii leaned against the inner wall of its cylindrical tomb. Las Estacas, Mexico—1971, the label said. The jar, two-and-a-half inches tall and one inch in diameter, stood upright like a coffin set on end. The scorpion inside was positioned head-down and tail-up, with its abdomen and front claws slouched unnaturally in the bottom’s corner. I wondered that afternoon as I went through his things, and I still wonder now, what the scorpion reveals—what it might tell me about my father’s life work, about my father himself. About the connection between my father and myself.
I tipped the jar on its side so the scorpion rested more naturally—flat rather than upright.
For the scorpion, its last day alive might have gone like this: With its two fighting claws thrust forward in guardian stance, the Paruroctonus silvestrii emerged with a dry rustle from a finger-sized hole under the rock. In the center of a patch of packed earth, it balanced on the tips of its four pairs of legs, nerves and muscles braced for action. Hair-like protrusions on its legs queried for vibrations, minute air movements that would determine its next move—attack or retreat.
Normally the scorpion would not come out of its burrow during the day, but an overcast sky pushed inland from the Pacific and toggled between light and dark, creating a twilight effect the scorpion mistook for dusk. In a dome of shade cast by the rock, its two-inch, yellow body glinted where the moist, brown stinger protruded from the last segment of the tail, now arched over, parallel with the scorpion’s flat back. Slowly the stinger slid from its sheath. The nerves in the poison sac relaxed.
A few feet away, at the base of a yucca, a small, oblivious beetle trudged nearer. The scorpion’s down-slope rush gave him no time to spread his wings. The beetle’s legs quivered in protest as the sharp claw snapped round his body. The stinger lanced into him from over the scorpion’s head. The beetle teetered between life and death for an instant, then stilled.
The scorpion stood motionless for several minutes, pausing to identify its dead prey and retest the ground and air for hostile vibrations. Confident, its claw retracted from the half-severed beetle and its two small feeding pincers stretched forward to pierce the beetle’s exoskeleton.
Deliberately and methodically the scorpion ate its victim.
An hour later, as it slowly sucked the last morsels of beetle-flesh off its pincers, the signal for the scorpion’s own death went undetected from behind the yucca—faint sounds audible to a human, but vibrations just outside the range of the scorpion’s sensory system.
A few feet away, a freckled hand with uneven, dirty fingernails raised an overturned glass jar.
The scorpion felt a tiny ripple in the air. At once its fighting claws hoisted and groped. Its stinger was erect in the rigid tail, its near-sighted eyes staring up for a sight of the enemy.
The jar came down. From underneath, a heavy index card slid between the scorpion and the sand, and with one swift move the man flipped the jar and the card upright, then upside down again, dropping the scorpion into a second jar, filled with formaldehyde. The scorpion clawed at the glass walls, writhed and reached sideways and up. Submerged, it strained for the surface, snapped again at the walls, again down, again up, until finally its convulsions slowed.
Still squatting, the man slipped the index card into his breast pocket. When the scorpion’s stinger finally limped and its pincers floated peacefully to either side, the man stood, rubbed his hands down the sides of his pants, and stepped past the yucca toward the road.
In the echoing silence a cicada clickity-zinged from inside the thorny bush, and from below, an anxious lizard scuttled between leaves as dry and thin as molted snakeskin.
Over the next several days I sorted my father’s personal belongings. I burrowed through drawers, cupboards, shelves, boxes, organizer trays, envelopes, cabinets, files, magazine stacks, grade books, checkbook registers, ornamental covered dishes, pockets, hampers, bills, memos, letters, receipts, journals, jars, bowls, plastic containers. At some point my mission to collect the items he’d requested had morphed into something else.
How would I feel if he died today? We had shared homes, off and on, for the first ten years of my life. Then we lived three hundred miles apart, visiting once a year at most, until a few years back, when he moved to my town. In some respects, I hardly know this man. In other ways, I can anticipate his every move. What label describes our relationship? And would I regret not knowing him better—or could I at least appreciate him more if I understood him from a different perspective?
Alone in his house, I committed personal invasion. I pinched and clawed through his things. I wanted to know what my father sought in scorpions—if I could make meaning of his work, perhaps that would balance the equation for me; perhaps it could justify the uneven weight of family man versus scholar, intellectual versus emotional connection. Snooping through his personal things was a way of getting closer to the man I consciously held at arm’s length—rooting out his unsavory secrets would help me justify my ongoing participation in our father-daughter dance of disconnection. Intimacy from a safe distance. My eyes and fingers queried for insights that would determine my stance as a daughter—poised to deliver the itemized goods or reconciled to withhold his treasures? Let him squirm, perhaps. I am not proud of my actions, in retrospect, but, in my defense, I was driven. Even if I had wanted to cease my search, it would have been impossible to stop. Impossible.
As an adult I recognize many qualities in myself that I also see in my father, some good, some bad. I think most of us can all say that about our parents. So how do we distinguish between good parenting and bad? Good daughters and bad? If our life experiences contribute to determining the adults we become, and if some seemingly negative experiences germinate some sort of timely lesson, then how are we to judge the actions of our parents—of ourselves, of anyone—with black and white clarity? Each action, each event, each nuance of life introduces new variables, new risks, new possibilities. Perhaps the tall boy from the apartments across the street pushed my Schwinn bike with a slightly different velocity or angle than my father would have, or maybe Lana would not have been as shy around my father as she had been in the presence of the handsome, tall boy. Had it been my father giving the lesson, perhaps Lana wouldn’t have waited so long to shout her instructions for me to pedal—in which case my bike-riding experience might have evolved into a different lesson than the particular one I came away with that day, something other than how to compensate for a series of over-corrections, which weeks later translated to my intuitive strategy for counterbalancing the teetering bunk bed. Or perhaps I would have eventually learned the exact over-compensation-counterbalance lesson under my father’s instruction at a later date, but too late to help me during the earthquake on February 9, 1971. Who knows?
I wonder about the scorpion in the jar: If the evolutionary tape were played again in Las Estacas, Mexico, that hot July day of 1971, which variables would remain constant and which contingencies, if altered, would have prompted the scorpion to act differently? And what repercussions might that have had for the scorpion? For the beetle? My father? One changed variable might have set in motion another chain of reactions, a chain that may have altered the scorpion’s fate. Or my father’s. Or mine. Suppose the scorpion had stung my father. Suppose he had died in the Mexican desert that day. Or suppose he’d lived, but was so shaken that he decided to change his career path. What if he had stayed in Pomona to read children’s books aloud to me on the sofa instead of driving twenty-five hundred miles cross-country to present his research to Harvard medical students?
Gould, of course, is right—there is no way to predict what would happen. Even if we could change a particular variable in the past, the chain reaction of possible outcomes alters the very structure of the branching bush. I wonder how far each leaf reaches, how wide the circle of our apparent spheres of influence.
During one of my scavenger-hunt days inside my father’s home, around dusk, a neighbor called to his dogs in the front yard, clinked tools on the driveway. He seemed to be looking my way, looking toward the window where I stood, where I scoured and pilfered. I stepped aside and reached for the plastic wand. Twist, twist, and the blinds tilted in unison, fluttered closed like the gills of a giant, hungry fish.
During the years I taught third grade, my students often picked scorpions as the topic for their independent research projects. A socially defiant but exceptionally bright boy named Tyler hunkered behind a barricade of several large hardbound books propped upright on his desk during sustained-silent-reading time one afternoon. He loved the close-up photographs depicting spine-like tail segments, nearly transparent abdominal cuticles, and elongated pincers. Earlier in the year I’d figured out that if I wanted Tyler to keep reading something, I had to feign disapproval—otherwise he instantly lost interest in the topic and redirected his attention to something else, like flinging straight-pin-spiked spit wads across the room with a makeshift slingshot fashioned from a stolen pencil and his deskmate’s hair scrunchie.
“What’cha reading?” I asked.
Tyler lowered one of the books. He smiled at me through squinted eyes and pointed to an enlarged image of one scorpion cannibalizing another.
“Gross,” I said. “Why do they do that?”
“The females eat the males after they mate.”
“I think you should put this away. And if there’s a chapter on giant sea scorpions from the dinosaur days, don’t read that, either. Have you heard about ancient scorpion monsters? I wonder if it’s true. Never mind. You’ll have nightmares.”
As I walked away Tyler flipped to the index at the back of the book, then spent the rest of the afternoon, including the time he should have been participating in a social studies lesson, scribbling in a notebook resting covertly on his lap. To the horror and gleeful fascination of his classmates, a week or so later, Tyler delivered his oral report, explaining that four hundred million years ago, ten-foot giant sea scorpions violently reigned at the top of the food chain. “They grew so big because there was a lot of oxygen in the air,” he said, and then he went on to describe how large fish, more fierce than the giant sea scorpions, forced the scorpions onto land, where they evolved back to a smaller size again. “They went from small to huge to tiny,” he said, holding up a picture he’d drawn himself, a comic-book type of scene with one scorpion biting off another scorpion’s head while nearby a fang-jawed, shark-looking creature dripped anticipatory globs of saliva from its tongue.
“Any questions?” Tyler asked.
Hands shot up.
When I was a kid, my father led graduate students through the sand dunes of Baja to collect all manner of arachnids during university-sponsored field trips. I imagine they hiked among the yuccas, and when my father paused to speak in his undulating rhythm of hyper-enunciated words, long-haired twenty-somethings scribbled furiously in their notebooks.
I recall one particular drive through the Mexican desert in our Volkswagen camper van with the music blaring, the windows down. I was around seven years old, small enough to stand upright on the floorboard between the driver and passenger seats. My father loosely fingered the steering wheel with one hand while his other hand rested on the gearshift knob. I swayed left-right-left in the growing gap between my parents as the van shimmied side to side from the vibrations of the tires. My mother mouthed the words to Biff Rose’s “Buzz the Fuzz” while I balanced barefoot beside her. I could have easily toppled over, but I kept my center of gravity low, like an arachnid braced for action, my legs slightly bent. With my bare thighs safely cradled against the armrests of the two seats, I danced. Lean. Let up. Lean. I danced with knees limber, danced to keep myself upright, danced in the hot Mexican wind like a folded piece of blank paper, flapping, free.
Years after my parents divorced, when I had grown into the door-slamming teenager who laughed at my friend’s leg-slapping heebie-geebies in a room full of dead bugs, my father often tried to explain the nature of his work to me—some of which I understood, but mostly did not. The problem was that he spoke to me in the only language he seemed capable of, which was the same language he used in his university lectures and scholarly publications. In 1973 he published a paper in the Journal of Arachnology on the evolution of the arachnid internal skeleton and its relationship to the evolution of the circulatory system. In this paper, he suggests “the neoteny as the major mechanism to explain the origin of the non-scorpion arachnids from scorpion ancestors.” Among other things, he details his discovery of what he calls “a perineural vascular membrane of certain lungless, rare arachnids.”
In bits and pieces, I am slowly coming to comprehend some of the theoretical significance of his discoveries regarding the anatomy of the scorpions he collected during those trips. To paraphrase (and over-simplify) his words: Tracing the changes of arachnid anatomy (specifically the circulatory system) through both fossil records and modern-day specimens provides evidence to support the evolution of ancient sea scorpions into many various modern-day spiders and scorpions. I glean from his research that the sea scorpions that evolved from gill-breathing swimmers to lung-breathing land walkers to vascular-membrane-breathers (with non-functional lungs) were indeed liminal creatures.
Among the items my father asked me to send him was a file folder containing his correspondence with Stephen Jay Gould. While fishing for Gould’s file among several four-drawer filing cabinets that line the walls of my father’s study, I discovered that the drawers hold hundreds of manila folders, each labeled and alphabetized by last name. Apparently my father was quite the letter writer. Not only did he write hundreds, perhaps thousands, of letters over his lifetime, but he kept copies of many of the letters he wrote as well as those he received. I don’t know why he did this. It could have been part of his compulsion to collect, inventory, and categorize things. After days of rifling through his files, it began to appear to me that he has been documenting his life. Perhaps he anticipated that his future value to the academic world would merit the preservation of his every printed word, both personal and professional. Poised for fame. Or posthumous recognition. Or maybe this archive is a manifestation of his narrow yet multi-branched intensity. His groping on the edge of a neurological spectrum.
It had been several days since my father called with his list. Technically I had everything he’d requested, but still I holed up in my father’s office. I explored the files for hours, reading under a dim lamp while the sky outside turned black. I randomly pulled letters, one after another. When I look back on those hours now, I see myself as if through the wide-angle lens of an old camera mounted near the ceiling, a grainy image I have contrived in my mind: In the photo’s frame, I straddle the open sliding-glass door that separates the house from the backyard; I stand, papers in hand, with one foot on each side of the threshold; in the light, I will deliver—fulfill the request made of me by gathering items on a list; in the dark, I scavenge—search for meaning. I traverse the line between intimacy and emotional distance, empathy and resentment, self-serving voyeurism and objective observation. Good daughter or bad? More to the point, does the motivation justify the behavior?
As I kneeled before an open drawer, my eyes rested on a file name: Rolf Lyon. I remember Rolf from my childhood—a pre-med biology student who became good friends with my father. He often camped with us in Las Estacas, patiently threading marshmallows on a wire for me, then blowing out the flames when they caught fire. The letters in the folder span from 1964 to 1999.
April 4, 1977
. . . I’ve been sort of depressed lately because it seems to me that I haven’t accomplished anything important in my career as a professor. When I was your age I thought that by the time I was my age I would either be dead or else a world-famous zoologist. Well, I’m 48 and still alive and nobody.
So my father, too, struggled to find meaning and purpose in his work. And to think, all these years I’d assumed him to be so self-certain. At the time he wrote this letter, he was close to my age now. I understand his angst. The question gnaws at me, too. I’ve often wondered if and when I’ll make it, and if the value of my life’s work will appreciate or depreciate over time. For those of us who don’t have children, how do we contribute to mankind’s evolution if not through the passage of our genetic material? It seems so obvious to me that my father’s academic accomplishments were indeed worthy, that asking about the natural world may not result in definitive answers, much less fame—but the value is in the asking, the search that leads from one question to the next, like a ripple on the ocean’s surface that swells toward the continental shelf, then crashes on the sand before pulling into itself again. All intellectual thought, all humanistic notions of education, are based on the act of questioning. Socrates asked questions; his form of inquiry rippled debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints; it was the asking and responding that stimulated critical thinking, illuminated ideas. Plato asked. Aristotle asked. Ideas swelled, evolved into sub-ideas of related origin, answered or not. Modern scholars, giants in their fields of expertise, joined the collective discourse as it stretched upward, arched and curled with too many voices to distinguish one from another—scientists and spiritual leaders and laypersons and your next-door neighbor. My father. Me. My third-grade students. My current students at the university. Our ideas and our wonderings rush toward the shore and crash in on one another. Temporary chaos ensues. A beautiful cacophony of seaweed and salt that splays, then draws back to rejoin the huge body of water that pulls into itself again and again.
In a 1989 letter to Dr. Gould, my father says of his own research and discovery:
This supports the macro-evolutionary aspects of punctuated equilibrium theory. It is my current belief that all macro-evolutionary novelties arise from the mutations of regulatory genes that cause changes in developmental timing. These allometric changes in body proportions can either be localized or else generalized. The mutations occur randomly, of course, but they do not need to be immediately advantageous; they only need to be viable. They can be carried in the gene pool until such time as they are favored fortuitously by environmental selection pressures, at which time their frequencies will be increased in the gene pool because of differential reproduction rates.
In other words, the reason certain anatomical features of modern scorpions matter is that this evidence supports the theory of evolution—especially aspects of Darwin’s theory that have been the focus of dispute by evolution-oppositionists. So by providing evidence of scorpion evolution, my father aims to fill in one small blank spot in Darwin’s argument.
Today’s discourse on evolution teeters between the known and the unknown; consideration of either side of the debate, either creationist or evolutionist, invites you to temporarily occupy an intermediate position—a liminal space—and to figuratively linger on the damp Mexican shore that connects land and sea. This gives me pause: If research yields no immediate answer to humankind’s inquiry into nature (or God, for that matter), does that mean a person’s life work is for naught? Perhaps, then, his or her work has no value; or maybe the point, if not to solve an equation, is to take inventory of possibilities. Or better yet, to speculate on how today’s actions might influence an as-yet unviewed documentary. What if we could anticipate the fast-forward? You’re still on the couch with your red, swollen ankle elevated on a tower of throw pillows; if you knew the convulsions would lead to paralysis, would you still hesitate to reach for the phone?
I imagine myself in this situation, pondering, hesitating. Who would I call? My father, perhaps. The expert.
When we returned from each desert trip, my father meticulously labeled each jar, either by placing a handwritten note inside, or by taping a typewritten note on the outside.
Paruroctonus silvestrii: Las Estacas, Mexico—1971
Family Vaejovidae—it stings but is not fatal.
At the height of his career he’d amassed at least a thousand jars, each containing from one to a dozen arachnid specimens. Inside their glassy tombs, each creature drifted in a sort of limbo—neither alive, nor allowed to begin the process of decomposition that would normally happen in nature. By decomposing, they would have become part of the soil, thus contributing to the next cycle of life. But preserved, they inhabited a space somewhere between life and death. Upon retirement he gave most of them to colleagues. Today only a few jars remain.
When he calls again to add more things to his list, I do not tell him I’ve taken his scorpion—the one, for reasons still unknown to me, he deemed worthy of saving. I have covertly excavated it for myself. It floats in suspended animation just an arm’s reach from my desk now.
“And my electric typewriter,” he says. “And ribbon cartridges. All of them.”
“Yes, I already packed those.”
“You’ll find them in my bottom desk drawer.”
“Already got ’em.”
“Pull the drawer fully open and look behind the metal divider.”
“Uh-huh,” I say, because I know he cannot stop. I reach for the scorpion and hold it at eye level. Much of the formaldehyde has either leaked or evaporated.
“Are you writing all this down?”
“Yes, of course,” I say, and I wonder if the amount of liquid affects the preservation of the dead animal, and if I should remove the cap and add more liquid. It would be a shame, after all these years, to let this particular scorpion dry up and crumble.
Carole Firstman is finishing her MFA at California State University Fresno. Her work has appeared in Knee-Jerk, Reed Magazine, The Valley Voice and other places. Awards include Solas Best Travel Writing and Writer’s Digest Magazine Feature Writing. She works as an intern for The Normal School and teaches undergraduate writing.