”Hate is my life’s work.”
W.D. (“Old Man”) Petersunn. ”Model Trains and Model Women” Petersunn Press, Midden, WA (1971)
This woman Chester Honeyacre saw, this woodswoman emerging from the wet forest at dusk, was to become important to him more quickly than he would have been able to imagine and oddly enough, the woman was a Petersunn. This later struck Chester as awfully significant because if there were two prominent families in Beaverteeth and the Honeyacres one , then the other was certainly the Petersunns. The Petersunns were, far and away, the richest people probably in the whole of the Old Northwest, (which did not really recognize the modern fortunes of Microlimp and its attendants) although they were not as historic in Beaverteeth as were the Honeyacres. The Petersunns were really Midden people, anyway, with their business base set in Beaverteeth. This business had made the Petersunns more money than you or I can imagine, but strangely, Karen Mae Petersunn was the only one of the Petersunns who had worked out life so that she might inherit none of it. She certainly knew what was involved. She liked to say that if one were to compare the age of the earth itself with the Petersunn Lumber fortune in a way popular among geologists who have to explain the vast reaches of Deep Geologic Time – wherein five thousand million years are compressed into the span of one year and Life itself shows up only in July and dinosaurs appear in September and humankind pops up at just one second to midnight on the night of December 31 – then your fortune, however vast, would appear at one second to midnight, while that of the Petersunns would have been in existence since at least May. The limitless forests of the Northwest had fallen before the axes and saws and mules and highrollers and helicopters of the Petersunn Lumber Company since 1841 when the original God Damn Petersunn, or whatever his name was, rolled out of a small black leather bag in a hotel in Beaverteeth still called “The Beaver” and announced that he was going to employ half the people in Clay Baby County forever and everyone had better just shut up and get used to the idea. By now, the Petersunn Fortune could not be counted in a day or a week or a month or in five thousand million years. It was vast and final in Clay Baby County. Pretty much everybody worked for the Petersunns in one way or another.
Unfortunately for her, of all the many individuals in all the many hatchlings of Petersunns, Karen Mae Petersunn was, of her own late and diminished generation, the surviving individual best available to produce reasonable genetic copies of old-time Petersunns. At least that’s the way her family had always looked at her. All too many Petersunn heirs had lately foundered on modern weaknesses and it seemed she was all the true breeding stock left with solid ties back to the rough men who built the company and shaped the gene pool. She had always known of her reproductive fullness insofar as her family was concerned and occasionally even joked about it in her odd and scholarly way. Chester, although he had not thought of her in years and hadn’t yet realized who she was, had actually known Karen Mae Petersunn since high school. She was several years younger, but he had noticed her back then, this tall red-haired kid, shouldering the Wangs and the Ngs and other Academic All-Americans out of the way, staking out each Science Fair as hers alone and pulling down the highest grade point average in the History of the Earth, which turned out to be exactly the same as the record for Beaverteeth Union High School. And she, a Petersunn heiress who might presumably have spent her schoolgirlhood in the south of France wearing garter belts and drinking champagne and having affairs with princes who wore women’s makeup. However, as Chester understood it, Karen Mae had spent her adult life in field research as a botanist whose specialty was the finding of traces of ancient mushrooms in the stomachs of dinosaurs or in the petrified amber of ancient trees. She worked from the professional shelter of Beaverteeth University College and the under funded laboratories thereof, maintaining a small house out on Mystery Island where she was never seen – not even at the Mystery Island Store for a hurried carton of milk – and avoiding her relatives and their anxious inquiries as to the current state of her emotional health, proclivities, attractions, urges and feelings of responsibility to the Family. She told the Family, whenever possible, that while they might be quite fine people as individuals, (although she had every reason to doubt it) as a family she wanted nothing to do with them and that included their money. She would devote herself, she told them, to Science only and to the pure pursuit of knowledge. She did this out of love for her chosen field of study, but also out of some spite toward her parents, she had to admit. Her father, William Dean “Old Man” Petersunn, often remarked that she had disinherited herself and he always said it with some satisfaction.
Karen Mae Petersunn had, at an early age, been sent off from Midden to an exclusive Seminary over in Tacoma and had spent her youthful days clad in a uniform, breathlessly racing up and down the cool green lawns, racketing through the panelled halls like a banshee, to then sit happily for long hours contemplating the mysteries of the nervous systems of frogs and the structure of sodium with Mrs. Dink, to whom she was forever grateful, who showed her what Science was. No one in her family had been the least interested in her lifelong need to collect shells and insects and rocks and mushrooms and leaves and rabbits and lizards and dogs and frogs and she would never have felt comfortable in the disciplines of Science had it not been for the stern demands of Mrs. Dink and her formaldehyde-smelling laboratory where leaves might be looked at under microscopes, where spore counts might be taken, where the stars might be contemplated, where Tycho Brahe might be dreamed of, where knowledge was seen not as something ahead, but something lost and behind, something to be refound. Religion had not appealed to her. She had tried to take the mandatory Chapel attendance seriously for a time, but it soon occurred to her that Mrs. Dink’s noble world of reason and experiment had no place in even an Episcopal bible and for a while she became the kind of girl who liked to smoke cigarettes and marijuana and sneak out of chapel to do it and run down the street to the little grocery store to hang out with the bad girls of the surrounding neighborhoods of Old Town. They kicked her out of the Seminary and her father got mad and, determined to teach her a lesson, sent her to public high school way out near Petersunn Timber in Beaverteeth, and hired local people
- the Beaverteeth High football coach and his wife – to take her in. This turned out a lot better than she would have thought because, while Coach Portermann’s household was stultifying and disciplinarian and harsh, the Science Department at Beaverteeth High was actually pretty good, much better than if she had gone to some horsy private school in Virginia, which was what her mother had wanted for her and what her father had wanted to take away from her.
In the years before their first divorce, her parents had been the perfect Northwestern couple and she their perfect child. She thought of them as cut-out figures set in front of grand landscapes, forever frozen in the tourist brochures of the nineteen-forties, her father in Pendleton shirts, smoking his inevitable pipe, her mother in the colorful halter playsuits of the era. They were rich and her father was considered dangerous and incompetent by the tough uncles who ran Petersunn Timber and so there was lots of time for skiing with long wood skis on the slopes of Mount Tahoma and horseback riding in the San Juans and trips in the sixty-foot Petersunn launch – “The Scaup” – up to British Columbia and the far islands in summer. There had been jaunts to Europe in the winter, to Augsburg and Greece and Spain. Her parents’ first divorce, when it came, caught Karen Mae unprotected. She ever afterward maintained a kind of stunned alertness that made each parent feel put-off; a kind of unfriendliness laced with intimacy, as if a long-time friend pretended to forgive you for stealing his wife and at the same time always showed you a little hurt half-smile that mocked you to your face. Karen Mae had been hurt by them and she determined she would never let them forget it. This was mostly because, after putting her through unimaginable pain over their divorce, having been hauled into court herself, grilled and examined and tested and deposed, mostly as to the infidelity and drunkenness of her father and the grand unhappiness of her mother, her parents had suddenly, as if on a whim, as if nothing had ever happened, blithely remarried. Coincidentally, this happened just as she was sent to Beaverteeth in servitude to Coach Portermann’s moral certitude, curfews, spyings and lectures. This is what had got her to the point that she began to take seriously her earlier vows. She would never take anything from her family. She saw clearly what evil Petersunn wealth did to people whom she once had admired, even loved. Science was pure and would save her. The perfect Northwest parents divorced again when she was back East in graduate school and she didn’t like either of them any better for it. Her mother finally died some years ago and she was sorry that they hadn’t been closer, but she had never taken anything from her and she was proud of it. Her parents had taken everything from her and she wasn’t about to give either of them – alive or dead – the satisfaction of turning her into a Petersunn money whore. When her grandparents tried to give her an education at Harvard, she angered them by refusing it, disinheriting herself once more, saying that she’d work her way through Beaverteeth University College behind the counter at the Pik Kwik Drive-in over in Fife before she’d take anything from a Petersunn or anyone who fucked or was borne of a Petersunn. (This last remark pretty much finished off Grandmother Petersunn on the spot.) Living in a little house with her best girlfriend from high school, working at the drive-in, she studied hard, leaning early in the direction of forest biology and the new field called ecology and after completing her BA in only two and a half years at Beaverteeth University College, got a nice fellowship to study back East at Princeton with the greatest man in the field. There, happy, she also took quite a few paleontology courses, and, avoiding the Forestry Department, where the name Petersunn was synonymous with that of the devil, got another degree in evolutionary biology, nailed her doctorate with a brilliant treatise about fungal evolution and then accepted immediately – much to the shock of her East Coast friends – when Beaverteeth University College offered her a research position in the Paleontology Department. She went back to Beaverteeth with relief. The West seemed to call to her, she said, although she did not in the least consider herself a romantic. Since she was the only person in the department at first, she decided she was a paleomycologist, one who looks for the earliest evidences of mushrooms, things which at best last a couple of weeks and are constructed almost entirely of water. Still, this joke allowed her to do what she had found she liked to do best. She spent most of her time out in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming, looking in and among rocks, digging in the ground – especially the ground that might have once been the stomach of the skeleton of a dinosaur – for the rare (some might say nonexistent) remains of the fruiting bodies of unseen threads; mushrooms, living things without chlorophyll, fruiting organs, knobs, fat little pigs, tubed and fungal and – to most people, to say the least – non-essential.
Chester Honeyacre had been no more in love with Karen Mae Petersunn in high school than he had been with every other girl in the Squilimuk Valley. He had loved just about every girl he ever met passionately and secretly. That’s just the way he was, and he did not consider it one of his strengths. He thought his true love was probably the famous singer Rosie Everlasting, who was startlingly beautiful and would always come first for him and while home girls like Karen Mae Petersunn were certainly beautiful in the way that Chester thought every woman was beautiful, women in magazines or on the movie screens like Rosie Everlasting personified the kind of girl he’d fall for first. This was why it seemed so odd to him that when he finally realized who she was in her adult life, even he, a man who until this time had fallen only for the obvious in women, (Shirley Anne (formerly) Honeyacre was considered a real babe, for instance) could immediately see that there was something about Karen Mae Petersunn that was wholly different, something he had not seen in her when they were in high school, something you really only saw if you looked through the pages of thick, expensive European fashion magazines. Here, he thought, was a woman who looked as if she could be wearing a very small bathing suit, effortlessly driving a jeep into strange desert locations pursued by Italian photographers with European cigarettes tucked into their bikinis, great clouds billowing above the Serengeti. She would look good in black and white. She would look good in any clothes, no matter what or of what sex. She was a tall woman of obvious middle age with a still-scary figure and a brain the size of all Manitoba. She was intimidating, something she did not want to hear about herself, but something she inevitably had to listen to when the current male in her life decided that he had better take seriously the obvious fact that she was no longer in love with him. There was something thin and tall and easy about Karen Mae Petersunn. There was something very beautiful about Karen Mae Petersunn. Age had only done this one good, thought Chester to himself, when he finally realized who she was. She looked like a woman who could drink hard and who could afford to like ugly men. She looked you right in the eyes, even though she might be taller than you.
One of the reasons she had an easy manner about her – especially for someone who had spent her life in the pursuit of things most people cared nothing about – was that Karen Mae Petersunn did not think of herself as being anything but paleontologically attractive. That is, she might be one of the cutest women in a scholarly field dominated by men, but she did not for a moment think that she was particularly attractive by standards outside the academic world. The whole subject, in fact, rather unnerved her and she quite early in life began to keep her big mane of auburn hair pulled back from her face in a scholarly bun and seldom let it down and loose. She banished makeup from her face and she whitened her lips and the bridge of her nose while working in the sun – since fieldwork was quite a lot of her job – and a couple of years ago had even taken to wearing an odd, mosquito-proof, sun-protectant net headgear that her students thought was idiotic, but that she loved. She had decided that when she hit fifty she was going to be prepared and had carefully started to arrange eccentricities that she could live with and get them started early. The hat, for some reason, reminded her of the late geneticist Barbara McClintock – one of her heroes – and it just plain made her laugh out loud. Karen Mae had never married, although she had not been without a man of one sort or another since the age of fifteen. She was a tall woman and, as she thought, not for everyone. She had come to understand the almost automatic distrust that men five or so inches smaller might harbor for her and, in most cases, she forgave it. It didn’t make her feel any better, however. And men lately seemed to her to be in smaller supply – and stature – than at any time in her life. So the fact that she had lately found herself shopping for lipstick and base and eye shadow and new underwear down in California gave her pause. A week before, she had spent nearly three hundred dollars to have her hair cut and colored by a guy in Beverly Hills who had longer and better hair than she could ever hope to have. At that point, she had abruptly decided she needed to get up home and see what of her life was left in the Northwest and she had flown up quickly, partially to accede to her ancient father’s unusual request for her urgent presence at a party of some kind and partially because she realized she really needed to think about a couple of things. Her months in Hollywood were beginning to take their toll, she thought to herself.
This was why Karen Mae Petersunn was physically very near Chester – although neither of them knew it at the time – at the exact moment of his vision, and she was later to think that this was perhaps the most significant thing that happened between the two of them. She had driven to the Squilimuk Valley from her little house on Mystery Island and had hunted around in the woods and found a rare late spring flush of big boletus mushrooms in a little clearing she had known about since she was a kid. This year was unusual for mushrooms in several ways and, in fact, she had never quite seen the like of these swollen boletes. They were as big as fat little porkers and as edible as anything on earth. Of course, she had thought she was alone. There is something about hunting mushrooms that will make any person suspicious and secretive. When Chester told her about his vision, days later, she thought, my God, I would have been on my hands and knees on the forest floor, detaching the fat little pigs from their white-threaded matrices with my precious old green Girl Scout pocket-knife, probably not more than three hundred yards away from where Chester Honeyacre lay face down in spring mud, babbling to Annie Bob and experiencing something that was so amazing that when I finally got straight in my mind what had happened to him, I could barely deal with it.
She had peeked through the underbrush. This man whom she had not realized at the time was Chester Honeyacre was covered with mud as he talked intently to the old woman. She could not hear what they were talking about and after awhile, the man had fallen face down into the spongy ground. The old woman, it had seemed to her, was singing, the way Indians do. She had been embarrassed to be spying on them and so she had crept away and had gone about her business, looking for more of the big bulbous mushrooms. When she had tramped back that way in a couple of hours, the old woman was still sitting there, one of the dog’s heads in her lap. The large muddy man, whom she felt as if she knew, was gone. When Karen Mae investigated the stillness of the scene, and because she knew Annie Bob from her days in high school, she found that the old woman was quite dead. There were so many official people about, because of the mudflow, that taking care of Annie Bob’s body was no real problem for her. She almost enjoyed it. The old thing looked positively healthy, she thought, not the haggard old dame who used to kid her constantly about her height.
“Hey, Kareem,” the skeletal Annie Bob would say to her, when Karen Mae had snuck out to get a pack of Winstons to hide from Coach Portermann. “Hey, cigarettes make you grow tall, huh?” Karen Mae had sort of liked being called “Kareem” and had thought it was funny. She looked down at the old woman’s body as several old relatives – she thought their name was Quilt, maybe, hadn’t their been a bunch of Squilimuk kids named Quilt? – clucked over what it seemed a shame to call a corpse. Annie Bob had a bloom to her cheeks and she seemed to have gained twenty pounds. Karen Mae decided not to mention the strange muddy man and his wild ways, since no one asked her and since, from what she had seen, he should probably have been lying there dead and not the old woman. She was somehow sure he’d had nothing to do with the death and indeed, the coroner, when he pulled up in his big, blue Lincoln, confirmed quickly that Annie Bob had certainly died peacefully of old age.
“She was probably napping in the woods in that little bit of sun that broke through this afternoon,” said the coroner.
“I should be so lucky,” said a bystander, a big man with blue writing all over his hands. “Man, she had some balls – excuse me – for an old woman.”
“She was a tough one, all right.”
Annie Bob’s dogs, all five of them, jumped into Karen Mae’s camper truck and did not turn a nose toward the lifeless body of the old woman when it was finally carried away by ambulance drivers and paramedics. She would have to find names for all these dogs if she was to keep them, she thought. No one of the old woman’s relatives had objected to her keeping the dogs and none of them would admit to knowing their names. Everyone seemed to treat the transfer of dogflesh over to Karen Mae as something natural and perhaps ordained. It was as if their names were not theirs, but had died with the old woman.