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Sometimes Too Hot the Eye of Heaven Shines

Telluride - 1997

She asked me, "Do you know who that was…?"

I didn’t know, but I understood who she referred to: a tall man with a greying Van Dyke had been in the store just long enough to ask the clerk if she had a certain book in stock. I stood too far away to hear what he asked for, but while the clerk searched the shelves there had been time to take in the figure waiting at the desk. To my eye he looked as if he had been setting fence posts all day. Dull, rumpled cargo pants and a Carhartt jacket. Bald. A tough guy. Maybe sixty years old? Too far away to be sure.

After the search turned up nothing and the man left the store, I browsed for another minute and took a copy of The New Yorker to the desk. I haven’t lived in New York for decades, but I like to think I might again someday. The magazine helps with that project. While the clerk rang me up she asked again. "Do you know who that was?"

I shook my head. "Should I?"

"You know anything about famous astronauts?"

Actually, I did. My brother and I were children of the Apollo era. Back then, during the glory days of Gemini and Apollo, you could write to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, tell them you were a kid who loved space, and they would send you manila envelopes stuffed with 8x10 photos and press materials the average six-year-old could stare at for hours. So I knew a spaceman or two.

"Was that a famous astronaut?" I asked.

"Honey, that was Bo Cunningham. A lot of folks don’t know about him, but I read his book a long time ago so I probably know just about everything there is to know about him... We almost never see him in town…"

I did not wait for my change. I scooped up my New Yorker and bolted out of the bookstore. Main Street in Telluride did not immediately reveal Bo Cunningham. While even in summer Telluride is never particularly crowded, the sidewalks are narrow and two people abreast can effectively block your view. Now what…?

A man foiled at a bookstore might next try the library.

I dashed into the Telluride public library with a little more urgency than is proper, so a few steps in I slowed down a bit, tucked my New Yorker under my arm so the librarians could see its cover, and I ambled into the stacks. The Telluride library is about the size of a good suburban branch so only a few minutes were needed to find Cunningham.

Watching from behind a row of shelves, I saw the man take an old book to a table. He sat down carefully, as if everything he did was consciously measured and executed. Nevertheless, even in stillness his efforts tended to take up space. The way he was, it made you want to stay out of his way.

Cunningham hunched over the book. He flipped a few pages. He knew where to go.

Time passed slowly in the library. Cunningham either was a slow reader or he read the same passage over and over. His body lost energy. He slumped noticeably. At one point he closed the book and appeared ready to stand. Time slowed once more and moments later, however, he gently lifted the cover and picked up the pages such that they opened to the precise place he wanted, likely the same page he had been reading before, or so I thought.

I had glanced down for a moment and the sound of a chair moving on the carpet made me look up. And another sound: crunching paper...? Cunningham disappeared into the stacks and then reappeared, empty-handed. I stood still and listened to his footsteps until I was sure the man had departed the library altogether.

The book wasn’t hard to locate. Cunningham hadn’t pushed it flush with the other books on the shelf.

For whatever reason I had expected the book to be something in the way of a technical manual. Something with information on septic tank maintenance. Rather like that. But that’s not what it was.

I held in my hands a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

As I rifled the pages, I had the thought that it would be impossible to know what had kept Cunningham slow and quiet for almost fifteen minutes. I was wrong.

A single page had been torn from the book. A ragged shred lined the inside crease.

I had just learned one thing about Bo Cunningham that no one else knew.

(c) Mark Dodson

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