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Authors: Carole Firstman

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Origins of the Universe and What It All Means


Origins of the Universe
and What It All Means


Origins of
the Universe
and What It
All Means





5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd.
Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Copyright © 2016, text by Carole Firstman. All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher: Dzanc Books, 5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103.

Parts of this book have been published, in varying forms, in
Colorado Review, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Lifestyle Magazine, Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers and Fatherhood, Reed Magazine, South Dakota Review, and Watershed Review

First US edition: August 2016

ISBN: 978-1-941088-72-2

Book design by Steven Seighman

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Firstman, Carole, 1964- author.

Title: Origins of the universe and what it all means : a memoir / Carole Firstman.

Description: Ann Arbor, MI : Dzanc Books, [2016]

Identifiers: LCCN 2015035099 | ISBN 9781941088722

Subjects: LCSH: Firstman, Carole, 1964—Family. | Authors, American—21st century—Family relationships. | Fathers and daughters—United States. | Essayists—United States—Biography. | Authors, American—21st century—Biography.

Classification: LCC CT275.F5547 A3 2016 | DDC 808.84—dc23LC record available at

Printed in the United States of America

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To my family of origin: Bruce, Aranga, and David.
And to Karl, the center of my universe.












Light, Time, Earth




In the beginning there was darkness.




Mojave Desert, California (July, 1969)—

Watch us.

We barreled across the desert toward Death Valley, gray waves of heat seething from the highway. The top of the Karmann Ghia was off and my mother's brown hair flew wildly around her sweating face. It was nearly noon. The sun blazed directly overhead. It must have been a hundred and five degrees by then. The engine ran hot and if we didn't get there soon we'd overheat. Stranded on the road.

Me in the backseat: sitting squarely in the middle, my legs folded, sticky against white vinyl. I was five years old. My sweater wrapped around my forehead like a turban, tight; the empty arms streamed behind in the wind, flapping between my shoulder blades. I pretended the sweater sleeves were my hair. Long, luxurious. Sexy. Yes, sexy—even at five, I knew what that meant. I'd seen plenty of pictures, glossy pages my father had thumbtacked to the wall at home, a mosaic of
centerfolds next to his desk, all of them honey-skinned with waist-long hair draped between their breasts. My favorite was a Polynesian-looking woman with thick wooden bracelets and a tie-dye scarf knotted above one ear. One time I stripped down to my blousy cotton underpants and wore the necklace I'd found at the back my father's bottom desk drawer—a peace sign pendant on a long, heavy gold chain, which I now assume a certain student had given him as a gift—and veiled my short, pixie-cut hair in a tablecloth. Alone in my parents' bedroom I drew the tablecloth tightly around the top of my head and held it in place above one ear, like the woman in the photo. I paraded in front of the full-length mirror, stepping diagonally to one side, spinning abruptly on my heels in order to catch the chain's reflection as it bounced against my skin. The tablecloth billowed from my shoulders then draped toward the center of my chest, framing the pendent that dangled just above my navel. Two more steps and turn again. Billow, sparkle, drape. Back and forth I went in front of the mirror, pivoting so quickly I almost lost my balance.

In the car, I imagined myself again as that Polynesian woman. I bounced with the road beneath us, beneath the tires, tires that smelled like tar in that heat. Up ahead, the asphalt ribboned up and down like a gentle rollercoaster. I held my breath every few seconds, just for an instant each time; it helped me hold onto the falling feeling in my stomach. Falling with each decline.
Yes. Now again.
“Faster,” I yelled, or maybe I just thought it.

That summer, my mother was twenty-four, a grad student studying plant pathology. My father was forty-one, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona. His mission to collect spiders, specimens for his class on the evolution of arachnids, meant a working getaway weekend for him, for us. Underneath the passenger seat, a shoe-box rattled with empty jars and half-filled bottles of formaldehyde. Several times that day, and throughout the weekend, my father pulled over when he got the whim. He'd traipse through the gravel on his hands and knees. My mother carried the box of jars while he peered between rocks. He captured scorpions, tarantulas, and desert weevil beetles with an overturned glass jar and three-by-five index cards covered with obsolete to-do lists or random notes-to-self: “Milk, cottage cheese, bread,” “arterial system: peri-intestinal vascular membrane.” Recently, while cleaning out my father's home, I found a box of letters and a tattered card on which was scratched, “Fondly, P.” There in the desert, with one swift move, he would flip the jar and the card, drop the live spider into another jar filled with formaldehyde, then screw on a lid to seal it tight. Death was instant. Then back to the car.

Behind the wheel, my father stepped on the accelerator. He turned the radio dial. The Mamas and the Papas' “California Dreamin'” blared from the dashboard, the words swept up by scarves of heat and spewed over the cactus-spotted sand.

As an adult, the memories click for me like a slideshow, each landscape a framed portrait. Isolated. Self-contained. Cropped. I recall a certain spot on the road to Furnace Creek, somewhere in the middle of that expansive desert. The Kodachrome slide in my mind features a straight segment of highway, one lane in each direction divided by a double yellow line. Black asphalt shoots diagonally across the frame from bottom right to top left, leading the eye from a textured foreground to a blurry, westbound destination. Alongside the road is a diamond-shaped sign with an arrow pointing to the right. It seems contradictory—a warning for an upcoming right turn on what appears to be a straight stretch of road. Surely it's just my memory that's cropped the actual curve in the road from the snapshot frame. Surely my parents saw the road and the curve, too.

High noon: through the wind my mother silently argued with my father, her lips pinched, her eyes narrowed to slits.

My father didn't curse or raise his voice. He just stated the facts. “Her name is Pat,” he said. “She needs a pad, a place to crash. Just for a while. A few weeks.”

My mother stared out the windshield. The back of her neck splotched red. Heat rash, perhaps.

“No reason to get bent out of shape,” my father said. “If you want to keep living with me, and I want you to, the house is plenty big. Pat can live downstairs. Otherwise, you're free to go.”

My mother still said nothing, just turned her head to the right. Her eyes trained on a yucca plant rooted in the roadside gravel. Its pointy leaves barbed dangerously close to our car. We zoomed past, the white bloom arching, swaying overhead. Swaying above my shirtsleeve hair.




Visalia, Central California (2010)—

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 sil-vestrii: Las Estacas, Mexico—1971.
The scorpion floats in suspended animation, trapped in the jar I 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 in my hand.

I discovered it a few days after my father telephoned from Mexico to say he has decided to stay there until he dies. “I'm not long for this world. I need you to ship me some things,” he said, so I reached for the notepad next to my computer and took down his requests, an itemized list 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 Courses 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 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.”

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